Mother’s memoir recounts Bloomingdale rape case

‘The Life She Once Knew,’ a story of heartbreak and hope, recounts the plight of Queena Phu, who survived a brutal attack but is permanently disabled.
Vanna Nguyen, center, in an embrace with her daughter, Queena Phu.
Vanna Nguyen, center, in an embrace with her daughter, Queena Phu. [ Courtesy of Vanna Nguyen ]
Published Oct. 21, 2020|Updated Oct. 21, 2020

It’s been 12 years since an uncommonly brutal crime rattled the Tampa Bay area and changed one family forever.

Queena Phu was an 18-year-old high school student, weeks away from graduating and going to college, when she was attacked one night while returning books to the Bloomingdale Regional Library in east Hillsborough County. The attack left her unable to walk, see, speak or live on her own. Today, she still requires constant care.

For years, a community has rallied around Queena, at once heartbroken and inspired by her story.

Now, the story has been made into a book. Her mother, Vanna Nguyen, has published The Life She Once Knew, a memoir that recounts her daughter’s attack and her family’s struggles to help her recover.

The book is more than just an account of a terrible crime. It is a story of survival.

“Queena is a hero,” her mother told the Tampa Bay Times. “And she fights for her survival every day.”

In "The Life She Once Knew," Vanna Nguyen tells the story of her daughter, Queena Phu, who survived a brutal attack in 2008. [Courtesy of Vanna Nguyen]
In "The Life She Once Knew," Vanna Nguyen tells the story of her daughter, Queena Phu, who survived a brutal attack in 2008. [Courtesy of Vanna Nguyen] [ Vanna Nguyen ]

The book is set for an official release next month, but early copies will be available at a “book reveal” party Saturday at the GFWC Woman’s Club in Tampa.

Nguyen writes in the prologue that she hopes her family’s story will inspire people to fight through life’s difficulties.

“I want to share my experiences for all who need encouragement and reassurance that families can make it through unimaginable tragedies and come out whole,” she writes. “I write on behalf of those who have experienced catastrophes similar to mine, for those who have been forced to wrestle with the same helpless feelings I’ve faced time and again.”

Told in 28 chapters, the story begins with the mother’s memories of the April 24, 2008, attack. She writes about the late-night call from one of Queena’s friends, who’d been on the phone with her when she heard a scream and the line went dead.

She writes about the group of concerned family members and friends who convened outside the Bloomingdale Library. The details are vivid and haunting: a blinking turn signal, an open car door, a cellphone and blood on the ground. After minutes of searching, the group found Queena behind the library, where she’d been sexually assaulted and severely beaten.

The story continues with Queena’s hospitalization, and the discovery that she had endured a traumatic brain injury. Later chapters chronicle her long struggles through rehabilitation and physical therapy.

Other chapters also cover the trials, sentencing and re-sentencing, of Kendrick Morris, the teenager who was found guilty of raping and beating Queena. Morris remains in prison with three life sentences for what he did to her. He has a fourth life sentence in a separate case that involved an attack and rape of a woman at a Clair-Mel area day care center.

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The book, which Nguyen made with the help of a professional writer, began with notes that she would type into her iPhone. As the story grew, Nguyen was told that her own tale, as an immigrant who left her native Vietnam for a better life in America, was also a compelling story.

Interspersed with Queena’s tale is the narrative of Nguyen’s own struggle as a young woman to escape oppression and start a new life.

Her father was an officer in the South Vietnamese military. When North Vietnam took over the country in 1975, he was imprisoned and the family’s life was upended.

After her father was freed years later, he put her on a refugee boat. She eventually made it to California. She stayed with an aunt, began to learn English, learned to drive and started a life. She later helped her family members leave Vietnam.

The hardest parts of writing the memoir, Nguyen said, were the ones that sent her to her daughter’s old bedroom, and the reminders — a school book bag, her prom dress, senior pictures — of the life she had before.

“For writing the book, I need to remember every detail,” she said. “So I go up there looking for everything.”

Her daughter still has challenges. But seeing those reminders, she said, helps her to keep going.

“She’s still beautiful,” she said. “She still has a bright smile.”

If you go

The Life She Once Knew will be available for purchase at a book reveal party from 3 to 6 p.m. Saturday at the GFWC Tampa Woman’s Club, 2901 Bayshore Blvd. in Tampa. The event will feature an author Q & A, music and raffles. Social distancing will be practiced and masks are encouraged. Proceeds will support Queena’s recovery and Hope Heals the Brain, a charity that supports families affected by traumatic brain injury.

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