Book Review: Undoing Jane Doe: How I Put the Middle School Coach and Teacher Who Sexually Abused Me Behind Bars

Photo Courtesy: Kristen Lewis Cunnane

Undoing Jane Doe Book Review by Sanford G. Thatcher

When Kristen Lewis became an assistant swimming coach at Cal-Berkeley in 2007, after spending the previous three years as first a graduate assistant and then an administrative assistant for the program, she felt that she had gotten her “dream job.” It was also the same year that she married Scott Cunnane, who had been a classmate of hers in both middle school and high school in the city of Moraga near San Francisco and with whom she had started to become romantically involved in their senior year.

Everything was looking up for Kristen, and she was thrilled with the way her life was going. Kristen was given responsibility for recruiting new swimmers, and her efforts began to pay off in 2009 when the Cal Bears won their first of what turned out to be four NCAA championships during her time there, with that first championship repeated in 2011, 2012, and 2015, making this the most successful period in the program’s entire history.

Kristen’s recruiting of top swimmers like Missy Franklin played a key role in achieving that success. Cal was able to recruit some of the best swimmers in the country year in and year out while Kristen was on staff.

Kristen was at the top of her game, enjoying her experience as coach, mentor, and role model for so many of the country’s finest athletes. But while her life seemed ideal on the surface, deep within Kristen harbored a dark secret that abounded in irony given her current position, and it began to emerge in 2010, particularly during a trip to Irvine for a swimming meet where Kristen came perilously close to committing suicide by wanting to end her life on the railroad tracks near the motel where she was staying with the team.

What was this secret, which had been buried so deeply in Kristen’s psyche that she had not even remembered the details for a full decade, so traumatic had they been? Not even her husband Scott knew about this secret, as close and loving as the two had become.

Back in middle school, in 7th grade, Kristen came to know a PE teacher named Julie Correa, who also was her coach for basketball, softball, and volleyball. Kristen was a gifted athlete in multiple sports, as well as a top student academically, and she looked up to Mrs. Correa as, yes, a coach, a mentor, and a role model and also as a teacher, Julie having become one of the most popular teachers in the school and winner of the Teacher of the Year Award. Julie was attracted to Kristen, too, emotionally and physically.

Another popular teacher in the school was the science teacher, Dean Witters. As was later discovered, Mr. Witters—also, like Julie, married—had been sexually abusing some of the female students who were taking his classes. Eventually Kristen, too, became one of his victims, in an incident so traumatic for Kristen that she could never remember the details later. Kristen was afraid to tell anyone, but had become so close to Julie that she confided in her and Julie promised to “take care of it.” As was later revealed in school district documents released after a suit was brought by Kristen and other victims of Mr. Witters for the school’s failure to protect the students from abuse, Julie had never reported Mr. Witters to the police, as she was obligated to do, but instead sent a memorandum to the school’s administration about Mr. Witters’s behavior. This was a test run, some now think, for Julie to find out what the administration would do about a sexual predator on its staff, and the answer came back loud and clear—nothing.

After “grooming” Kristen in middle school for two years, then Julie finally escalated the stakes by starting to abuse Kristen sexually once she had begun high school in the same town. By that time the trap had already been laid, and Kristen found herself in a psychic prison that Julie had been constructing all along, piece by piece, so that Kristen became, in reality, Julie’s sex slave, forced to do her bidding whenever and wherever Julie felt she “wanted her.”

This virtual prison involved an elaborate system of constraints, threats, and behaviors that made Kristen feel isolated from her family and friends, afraid to tell anyone for fear of Julie’s possible reprisals. Julie hollowed out a dictionary for Kristen to keep in order to conceal a cell phone that Julie dedicated to communicating with Kristen at all hours of the night and day. She stalked Kristen constantly so that Kristen wondered whether Julie was hiding in a nearby bush or watching her from afar. Julie even rented an apartment so that she could take Kristen there late at night for her sexual gratification, in a car where Kristen had to crouch down in the space in front of the passenger seat so that passersby would not be able to see her. And, most extreme of all, Julie would even break into Kristen’s home and hide under her bed or in her closet and assault Kristen all night while her parents were asleep. On one of these occasions Julie broke one of her legs trying to leave via a bed sheet strung out of the second-story window in order to avoid being discovered. This is only a very partial list of all the devices and schemes Julie used to keep Kristen under her complete and total control.

People are shocked when they learn about a child being sexually assaulted just one time. Kristen was raped, she estimates, more than 400 times over the more than three years that Julie kept her prisoner. To cope with this abuse psychologically, Kristen adopted various stratagems including disassociation wherein she created an alter ego named Eve who would stand in for her when the assaults were occurring so as to protect Kristen psychologically as much as possible from the harm being done. And the result, ultimately, was Kristen burying the memories of these horrible experiences so deeply that she literally blocked them from her conscious mind.

Undoing Jane Doe, in the course of the narrative it unfolds, does not shrink from revealing all these sordid and shocking details, but the book does so in pursuit of a noble and uplifting cause—the pursuit of justice. Long before anyone heard of the “Me Too” movement, Kristen mustered the fortitude, with the key encouragement and support of her closest friends, not least Scott who had become a district attorney, to engage the justice system in an effort to hold Julie Correa accountable for her misdeeds. It has, thankfully, a happy ending as Mrs. Correa accepted a plea bargain—in the face of charges that could have put her away for the rest of her life—that sentenced her to prison for eight years, a term that ended with her release in March 2018.

Kristen Cunnane is not a professional writer, but you would not know it from reading this book. It is a masterfully woven tapestry of chapters that intersperse flashbacks to the nights of physical hurt and psychological terror Kristen had to endure along with revelations about all the devious schemes Julie used to avoid discovery of this illicit affair, accounts of the ongoing prosecution of the case (which involved, initially, Kristen’s calling Julie on the phone to get her to admit to her crimes from a decade earlier), and an unfolding of the life that Kristen tried to lead, successfully in many ways overtly in academics and athletics, despite this heavy burden she was forced to carry.

Among the book’s stylistic devices that make it unusual and engaging is the inclusion of an ongoing interior monologue that is set apart, visually, by being placed in italics. The commentary here is often directed at Julie and reveals Kristen’s true thoughts and feelings that she could not dare to disclose to her abuser at the time. One might think of this monologue now as “Kristen’s revenge” because it shows what truly was going on while Julie built her own fantasy world of romance, believing as she said at trial that this girl only half her age had somehow become her peer capable of giving consent to this “relationship.” The monologue is brilliantly constructed, often including some black humor that helps bring a welcome laugh among so much that can only evoke tears.

Overall the book moves along at a steady pace, allowing the reader to integrate all the strands of the complex story being told, and while it feels often like an emotional rollercoaster, the highs ultimately outshine the lows, and one can only cheer for the outcome as a successful example of the justice system doing what it is supposed to do.

Indeed, people reading this book should have a box of tissues within reach. No one reading, for instance, the testimony of Kristen’s husband, Scott, at the hearing where impact statements were delivered and reading Kristen’s own testimony above all, which Scott called “amazing,” can help shed a tear for how much suffering was caused to Kristen above all, but also to so many of those who love her, whom she calls her “army” of supporters.

Anyone who has viewed the 48 Hours special titled “Kristen’s Secret” from 2014 will already know the basic facts of this story. That documentary was quite well done and is still worth viewing today. It is indeed the first way I learned about what happened to Kristen, who has since become a Facebook friend, as we share mutual interests in swimming. But it cannot get to the level of detail, and certainly not to the level of emotional intimacy and engagement, that this book affords to the reader. And you will get to know who Kristen really is much better, ultimately, through this book she has written than through the interview she gave to CBS.

The book comes to a close with Kristen’s deciding to retire as Cal’s Associate Head Coach, a title she had earned by 2011, regretfully but also sensibly, as she by that time had two young children to take care of. But, though bittersweet, this decision came right after yet another national championship for the Cal Bears in 2015, so that Kristen left at the peak of success, with only good memories to cherish. (Head Cal coach Teri McKeever contributes a Foreword in which she makes clear how the bonding of the swimmers after learning Kristen’s secret had a lot to do with the team’s success at nationals.) The contrast with all the bad memories dredged up from the past, partly with the help of her therapist who had diagnosed Kristen as suffering from PTSD, could not be more stark. And the great irony here is that Kristen triumphed as the coach, mentor, and role model for the Cal swimmers in just the way that Julie Correa should have done for Kristen years earlier. Julie betrayed the trust her athletes placed in her; Kristen did just the opposite.

Yet the reader also knows that this ending is not all wine and roses. What Julie Correa did to Kristen can never be undone; its effects can only be mitigated and counteracted over time. (This legacy of suffering becomes clear from what Kristen writes in her Postscript following the release of Julie Correa from prison in March 2018.) And this sad fact should be a reminder to all of us that children, once harmed and betrayed, are not likely ever to fully recover from that damage done, even if they have the phenomenal strength and courage of a Kristen Lewis Cunnane, who acknowledges herself in her court testimony that people in less fortunate circumstances than hers, and with no “army” to support them, may well go on to carry out the suicide she managed, but just barely, to avoid.

Order the book today

Sanford G. Thatcher retired as director of Penn State University Press in 2009 after twenty years in that position. An alumnus of Princeton University where he was a member of the swim team for four years, he has been a member of US Masters Swimming since 1972 and has competed in well over 200 meets. He serves on the USMS History and Archives Committee and wrote a 133-page history of the Princeton swimming and diving program. For Swimming World he has contributed reviews of books by Olympians Shirley Babashoff and Jeff Farrell. Currently he competes in the 75-79 age group for Texas Ford Aquatics in Frisco, TX, where he now resides. 

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Jim Doig
Jim Doig
5 years ago

Terrific review and I will order the book. Well done, Kristen!

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