She hates it when people call her a kid. "I get kind of offended," she says, with a roll of her eyes and a toss of her long, smooth hair -- two of the few youthful mannerisms she allows herself.
In fact, it is hard to remember that Desiray Bartak is only 14. She speaks in full sentences, sliding smoothly into inspirational mottoes that bring with them a faint echo of all the times they have been said before. She is the sort of girl adults find either inspiring or unnerving: so self-possessed, so articulate, so unlike what we remember of our own teenage years that she seems almost unreal. As Desiray is quick to remind people, she was forced to grow up very quickly. Once she had been sexually molested by the man who was her godfather and her father's best friend, her childhood was over.
But what followed was not the typical story of a young victim. After a year of depression, of thinking about death, wearing only black clothes and painting her face the same color, the 11-year-old told her mother what her godfather, Richard Streate, had done to her. Later, she spoke publicly before the judge who had sentenced him in the criminal case, protesting the three-year sentence negotiated as part of a plea bargain. She sued Streate for civil damages and won a $2.3 million judgment. She gave news conferences, she set up a foundation, she began to publish a newsletter for other children. She did "Oprah," she did "20/20." She lobbied Congress and the California legislature for a mandatory six-year sentence for convicted child molesters.
When Streate, who now calls himself Kyle Hochstraser, was released after only 18 months in jail, she went back to the press and protested some more.
For whatever reason -- temperament, a close relationship with a mother who says she too was abused as a child, a talent for transforming anger into something else -- Desiray made herself more than an ordinary kid who had been terribly injured.
"To me, she is a heroine," says Los Angeles lawyer and feminist Gloria Allred, who represents Desiray.
"Most of the time the child survivors do not identify themselves," Allred said yesterday from her L.A. office. "They're ashamed, they feel guilty, they may be afraid. But we do see the face, and we often hear the name, of the perpetrator. Here the roles are reversed. This man came to court -- there's a picture of him somewhere with a jacket over his head -- while she was standing up proudly revealing her face, revealing her name."
Yesterday Desiray was honored by Hillary Rodham Clinton and an organization called the Caring Institute for being one of the 10 "most caring" young adults in the country.
"I want to inspire kids," says Desiray, who lives in Marin County, Calif. "To let other kids know they are not alone."
Desiray is sitting in her hotel lobby, waiting for a bus to take her to the Capitol Hill reception. Her mother, Wayanne Kruger, is here with her, and the school counselor who nominated her for the award. The girl sits attentive and still, but just the other night she woke her mother and said she was so restless she wanted to run up and down the hotel hall.
"All the love and support I'm getting here -- it's wonderful," says Desiray. "It makes me hyper."
"She bubbles," says Kruger. She has always been like this, says her mother, gregarious, energetic. But what would she have been like if she had not gone to her divorced father's home for a summer visit, if he had not taken her to stay with her best friend, Richard Streate's daughter?
"When I was molested, it changed me a lot," says Desiray. "I was a different person. He took away my childhood. I was thrown into an adult situation. It changed my whole outlook."
Streate came into Desiray's room one night when she was 10 and, she said at a news conference recently, made her "perform sexual acts that only a husband and wife would do." She told no one, and grew increasingly miserable. Kruger thought her daughter's depression, which eventually led to her hospitalization, was a reaction to her recent remarriage. But the next summer, when she was back at Streate's house, he again entered her room. This time, Desiray says, she struggled and he left. The next morning, she called her father and told him what had happened. He took her home, yet did not accept her story.
"He said, quote-unquote, that he didn't believe me," says Desiray, "that I was making it up for the attention, that I was always a dramatic child." Desiray's relationship with her father has never recovered. She refers to him, coolly, as "my biological father."
Kruger, however, believed. It was something, she says, about how her daughter was crying -- she just knew. They went to the police, who, Kruger says, suggested that she was coaching her daughter to tell the story as part of a custody fight with Desiray's father.
"I kept saying, 'She's not lying,' " says Kruger, and eventually, after seven months, the district attorney met Desiray and was convinced. Several months later, when another girl told police he had abused her as well, Streate confessed.
Because neighbors noticed a police car outside her home and because of Desiray's honesty when asked about it, word got around at her school about her accusations long before she spoke to the news media. Kids taunted her and other adults questioned her tale.
"I was an outcast," says Desiray. She begged her mother, a nurse who works in a dermatology office, to teach her at home; eventually she withdrew from regular public schools and enrolled in an independent-study program in which she works with a tutor. She likes the freedom, the distance from most kids her age -- from the gossip, the "peer pressure."
It was after Desiray learned in 1991 that Streate had been released on bail and was back home with his children that she chose to abandon her anonymity.
She wrote to Allred after she heard someone mention that she could sue Streate in a civil case. "I want to sue him civilly!" she told her mother. "I just want to get on the stand, because he hurt me!"
Allred was skeptical about Desiray's desire to speak to the press, but after meeting with the girl and her mother and speaking to Desiray's therapist, she agreed, and has come to feel that Desiray's decision helped the girl.
"This has had the effect of putting her on the offensive rather than being on the defensive," says Allred. "I think a lot of children in her position are in the defensive mode. It has helped her to know there are steps she can take to fight back, and to let other children know there are steps they can take. I feel children need a spokesperson who is one of their own. I felt she would be someone who other children would be inspired by, so they could find their courage."
The dark-haired girl in the black and white outfit looks old for her age; the blond mother in white and gold looks young. They sit facing each other and at one moment both lean down to scratch their legs, as if feeling the same itch. Kruger had Desiray when she was only 16, and Desiray explains that Kruger was "like my friend or babysitter" as much as a mother. Perhaps that made it easier to tell her what happened.
Desiray hopes her newsletter will help others who have been abused. Children Against Rape and Molestation (CARAM) is a nonprofit foundation and struggles to get by on donations. More than 3,000 children and organizations receive its bimonthly newsletter, a modest photocopied publication that includes games, poems, letters from readers, reminders like "Movies can help make a bad day Good!" and notices about Desiray's appearances on TV. Members of CARAM also write privately to readers who want pen pals.
This is what she wants to talk about, not the abuse, not the unhappiness.
"I don't focus on what happened," says Desiray. "Now that I've done so much good in life -- I feel if you tread on the bad, people stick with that -- 'The Girl Who Was Molested!' "
This week, Desiray will go to the winter dance at the local high school. She feels perfectly comfortable with boys her own age, she says. "It's affected me with large males," she says of the abuse, and lifts her fists up like a boxer, miming a threatening physical presence, "but not with my guys."
It is not clear if Desiray will ever get any money from her civil case; Streate is not a rich man. But she has plans. She wants to go to college, to be a lawyer. Gloria Allred has invited her to join her practice. But now it is time to get on the bus. She has forgotten her name tag. A teenage boy hands her his. Her name is now Ray. They joke about this -- he makes a joke, she laughs, he laughs -- and they walk out the door.