One day after walking home from a train station on a bright summer afternoon in late June, I could hear birds chirping and kids laughing outside, while inside I saw my own blood smearing on a hallway wall as I struggled to keep a stranger from dragging me into a bedroom.
It’s strange now to tell the story the way it actually happened.
To tell what actually happened to me when I was just a 19 year old college student.
For years, when I would tell the story—that is, if I told it—I would talk about what happened as though it were a comedy. I did not want to make my listener uncomfortable.
So I would tell it as a joke.
Either that, or I would tell it as if it were just this thing that had happened. Like, “One time, at band camp…” It felt easier that way: here, I’m telling you, but you nobody has to feel bad in the process.
I felt it was my job not to make other people uncomfortable.
Even now, talking about what happened feels in a lot of ways like “coming out”—such was the degree of shame I carried for so long. Shame at not having noticed that a stranger was following me home. Shame at having fainted after he began choking me. Shame at having actually begun to give up the struggle. Shame at having opened the door. . . .
See, there’s the real story.
One day, after walking home from a train station, there was a knock at my apartment door. . . .
And I opened it.
I like to think many people would be surprised if they actually understood how little a victim can actually be guilty of that will make her blameworthy in others’ minds. I like to think many people would be surprised.
Here’s a riddle. What should a person do when there is a knock at the door, but there are no peepholes? The answer is . . . it’s a trick question. If you are a woman, you should lie still and make no noise until the knocking stops.
If, instead, you are foolish enough to respond by opening a door in broad daylight, and a man standing on the other side elects to savagely attack, assault, rape, or even kill you, then, well …. really, you asked for it, didn’t you? Opening the door pretty much operated as consent.
I didn’t understand that’s the way things are back before it happened to me. I was only 19, so there was much I didn’t get about the way the world works.
But now I get it. Today, I am more familiar with the way the world—well, too much of the world—thinks.
Now, I understand that all over the world, sexual violence is frequently, amazingly transformed into a woman’s shame.
The very first time somebody asked me what happened was within days of the assault. Since it was still early days, I continued apply the innocent logic of a child. If asked: “Who do you blame for what happened to you?” in those (first few) days, I naively would have blamed my attacker. See? I thought like a baby.
So when I was, in fact, asked to recount what had occurred, I was wholly unprepared: I told them exactly what happened. I told them that there had been a knock at the door and that I had opened it.
In response, I was met with an unequivocal: “Oh! Well then, it’s your fault.” And in that moment, I got it.
It was my fault.
Today, I do not believe this.
But, after that response, I did. For many years.
And so after that first telling of what happened, I never told the story again in such a way that would even so much as appear to be inviting compassion or understanding.
To the contrary, in my mind, because what had happened was, in fact, my fault—the very least I could do, was to not make other people uncomfortable or feel put upon by my telling them a cringeworthy story about something that, ultimately, I had done to myself.
So I didn’t talk about it.
Or, when I did, I kept it brief. And, light.
And for years, it never remotely occurred to me that anyone else could have been at all responsible for what happened. In my mind, there was one person—and one person only to blame: me.
I will never forget the moment when, sitting in a torts class almost four years later, I learned of a case that stood for the notion that if an apartment complex located in a known high-crime area, makes a conscious decision not to install peepholes in its tenants’ doors, this can constitute negligence.
Too late. By the time I found this out, it was too late: the statute of limitations had long since passed.
Back when it happened, back when I had been assaulted by a stranger, out of the blue, on a clear summer’s day, I had been blamed because I opened the door.
And later, I was blamed because I
did not could not remember my attacker’s face.
I know now that having trouble remembering a traumatic event is not uncommon; it is the mind’s way of protecting itself. The mind’s way, perhaps, of saving you from ever reliving that moment when your blood turned to ice because you came face-to-face with a nightmare. Forgetting can be a facet of PTSD, an element of severe trauma. In short, it is something that can happen to a victim of violence.
But back then, I did not know that. And when it happened to me, I was blamed for forgetting.
“How could you not remember what he looked like? Are you covering up for him? You must have known him? You must have something to hide.”
During my assault, I had escaped by diving through a closed window, shattering the glass with my body.
The attack took place in a second floor apartment. Yet, my only desperate prayer in the fraction of a second before I hurled myself at the window, was a prayer that the glass would, in fact, break. I genuinely feared it would not give way—that it was some sort of reinforced glass, that it would be like throwing myself at a wall, and that I would remain trapped inside. Trapped inside with a stranger who wanted to rape me. (Really, he might have planned to kill me, but at that point I hadn’t seen the butcher’s knife.)
The window did shatter when I threw myself into it — but my body did not clear the windowsill. I hung out the window, eyes swollen almost completely shut from the earlier repeated blows of his knees to my face. I saw my blood hitting the ground, two stories down.
But my attacker wasn’t done with me.
I could feel him trying to pull me back in through the window, shards of glass from the shattered window digging into my stomach. On the balcony next to me I saw two men.
Two men, hesitating.
Stepping into their apartment, and out again, then in again—they debated whether to help.
It would be only later that I would reach the only rational explanation I could think of for why they debated helping me—I believe they thought perhaps the stranger was my spouse, and so maybe they were reluctant to get involved in a domestic dispute… Even if that domestic dispute resulted in my death.
For me at least, the most difficult aspect, and the part that has inspired the greatest sense of tragedy in my adult years (in those rare moments when I have allowed myself to reflect on it) was the derailment of my life. The idea that the course of my life was irretrievably altered in a way that was not of my own doing; not of my own volition.
To be sure, some would say that is the very definition of life—it’s what happens while you’re busy making other plans. But the honest truth is that for me the day of my assault will for always be marked as the day my life was veered off track. And the day that cost me months, years (a lifetime) in trying to correct its trajectory.
There’s a line in my favorite movie What Dreams May Come: “The real hell is your life gone wrong.“
The coldest truth about getting beat up by a stranger who wanted to rape you is that when it’s all said and done, the world really doesn’t care.
I mean, yes, as a theoretical proposition the world cares: given an alternative, the world would prefer not to elect rapists as community leaders.
But beyond that, there is no real practical import to the notion that the world cares when you become a victim. To the extent that it ever did, the world’s caring is fleeting.
When you don’t show up for work the day after the assault because you are laying in a hospital bed, the world, though it may care, will still fire you from your job as Senior Assistant Manager at Blockbuster . . . because life goes on. And plus, business.
And when your roommate finds a new girl to move in with, she will gently leave your things outside in the garage (to make it easier for you to retrieve them) with a kind note explaining how she didn’t feel comfortable living there anymore, and was able to break the lease, but had to move in quickly with someone else.
And when it is time to go to the police station to help their sketch artist draw a composite of the man whose face you don’t remember, you still don’t have a car. You don’t suddenly get a car: this isn’t Oprah. The world goes on just as it did before. Scared or not, you still have to take buses and ride the train.
Back then, when I was 19, I lost permission to feel safe in the world.
I carry with me always the feeling that if I allow myself to abandon vigilance for one moment, something will strike. That feeling, which kicks whenever I let my guard down, is undeniably compulsive. I am sure that it will never leave me. Trauma has bathed and altered my cells, it may have even changed my DNA. I will never again experience the security that comes from believing that bombs explode only in other people’s lives.
I hope we can end sexual assault.
I have unfinished business.