Theresa Saldana has a question: "Why," she asks, "should a convicted felon get time off for good behavior? The approach should be that if you behave, you do your time. If you misbehave, you get more time."
Few among the living have more reason to pose the question. And she has others: Why not prosecute attempted- murder cases as murders -- "the intent was the same." And why not sentence violent offenders to terms with no possibility for parole?
Saldana is a survivor, adding distinction to a word that would become a clich,e. She is also an actress and a victim of a violent crime. The varied and complicated facets of her personal and professional lives come together this week in "Victims for Victims," a dramatization focusing on a near- fatal assault upon Saldana. In the film, as in real life, she plays the central role.
"The difficult part of the movie was playing myself so near death," she recalled. "I would not have done it if I didn't feel physically and emotionally well . . . It did not prove to be traumatic. I'd been playing the role for about a year before, so I was well-prepared."
Arthur Richard Jackson, described as a Scottish drifter who had been deported twice from the United States, had seen Saldana in three movies -- "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Defiance" and "Raging Bull." He developed something of a fixation over her, reminiscent of John Hinckley's obsession over actress Jody Foster, and began trying to locate her. In March 1982, he found her outside her apartment and stabbed her 10 times. Saldana was saved from certain death by Jeff Fenn, a delvery man, who prevented Jackson from inflicting further damage. Twenty to 40 other people watched.
The stabbing scene, as recreated in the movie, is as uncomfortable to listen to as it is to watch. "The sound makes the scene striking," Saldana observed. "That's what I remember best -- the screams -- rather than the knife and the blood."
But what's an actress doing playing the lead role in a movie describing her own near-elimination? For one thing, she's boosting a self-help group she helped form after her assault. The title of the show is the name of the group -- Victims for Victims -- which aspires to become a lobbying organization.
And, she pointed out, when her friends heard what had happened to her, they said, "My God, this is just like a movie." It was inevitable that the incident would become a film, she said. The question was whether she would participate and make sure it was a fact-based story or whether someone else would do it and embellish and sensationalize. "I made it clear that I wanted the opportunity to play myself," she said. Saldana wanted to be certain that much of the film dealt with the aftermath of the stabbing rather than allow the movie to turn into a two-hour stalk-and- slash show.
The result is a film that is stiltingly precise in its re- enactment and which, in the current mode of fact-based, crisis-oriented TV movies, details the problems of victims that reach far beyond the initial trauma of being attacked.
In Saldana's case, other casualties included her bank account and her marriage. She says she ran up medical bills $10,000 above the amount paid through state and insurance compensation, had to pay for companions during an extended period in which she dreaded being left alone, and required outpatient psychiatric and physical therapy.
She and her husband, Fred Feliciano, were divorced in the months following the assault. In the film, Feliciano, played by Adrian Zmed, is depicted as a man who knocks himself out trying to be helpful to his slowly recovering wife, only to be shunted aside when Fenn (Kenneth Philips) is received warmly at the hospital when he makes an emotionally charged visit to Saldana. Romance never bloomed between the victim and her rescuer, Saldana said, but it was easy to see that her husband -- and their marriage -- got swept away in the backwash of the assault. "The attack and its subsequent effects were the primary reason for the divorce," she said. "We had our problems, but they were the kind of problems that people work out. People did not deal with him at the time as a victim too. I was caught up in (solving my own problems) and did not reach out to him . . . I was so ill and emotionally debilitated myself. He was left out."
Last summer, in what seems an incongruity, Saldana was featured in "The Evil That Men Do," a Charles Bronson film riddled with violence. She says she discussed the part with her support group before taking the role. "One of the saving graces is that the woman I portray is a nonviolent person," she said. "There's someone out there who's killing people again and again. My character goes along with Bronson and plots against the person who's doing the killing." It was the first movie offer she received after her attack, she added, and she would have preferred something less violent.
This week she plays herself. "People were wary about my playing myself," she said. "I felt it the first few days on the set. They were waiting to see if I would flip out, get hysterical and have to be taken to the funny farm." She didn't.
But that doesn't mean everything is back to normal. "I don't think you're ever the same again," she said. "I'm more cautious. I have security. I live a private life. I have an unlisted number. I don't think a victim is ever the same after an attack like that."
Victims for Victims, based in Los Angeles, has about 500 members, she said, 50 of them active. "We want to expose the criminal justice system for what it is," she said, "a system that protects the criminal."
And there's always 1988 to think about. That's when -- if he behaves himself -- Jackson may be a free man. Court testimony indicated that Jackson has in the past written threatening letters, expressing regret that he only maimed Saldana and failed to kill her.
"I'm told that he continues to write everyday in prison," she said. "I'm appalled. I've retained a lawyer to seek legal recourse. And I hope to raise a public outcry. He shouldn't be on the street."