In July, I was assaulted from behind at around 6:00 a.m. while on a run in my parents’ neighborhood. The usual path I had been running that summer was in a somewhat isolated park with lots of trees and no lighting. Because my parents live less than a mile from where my boyfriend and I live now, it wasn’t a huge inconvenience to pick a different route through a quiet residential neighborhood with lots of lighting in hopes I would be “safer.”
The first thing my boyfriend told me to do when I got home was to report what happened to me, but I felt so confused and humiliated that I kept insisting it wasn’t a “real” assault. Even when my body started to bruise where I’d been hit, I still kept repeating in my head that it would be silly to report because it wasn’t “that bad.” It wasn’t until a few days later when I saw a local news site with a blurry photo of the man who assaulted me — along with an article detailing four other assaults that had taken place within days of mine — that I filed my first police report.
Now there was a new anxiety-laden narrative buzzing around in my head: I was the second woman who this had happened to. If I had reported sooner, would that have saved other victims?
Within a couple of days of my police report, the man was caught and I began the journey through the confusing, frustrating spectacle that is our legal system. There was a preliminary hearing in early August, where he admitted his crimes and I saw him for the first time without the cloak of receding nighttime, a bike, and a dark hoodie. I remember being struck by how small he was, and how young. Nineteen years old.
Since the attack, I experienced a resurgence of anxiety and was once again an expert at denying the true cause. This assault was affecting me deeply, even as I continued to put forth a facade of shrugging or laughing it off because it still felt so ridiculous to name. There was part of me that shared the perpetrator’s perspective that it was “just a prank” and not a legitimate assault, because it’s “not like I was raped.” I’d also been through a collection of objectively worse experiences at the hands of men who had once claimed to love me or care for me.
It wasn’t until I saw him in court that the gravity, the reality of the assault sunk in. I spent the entire initial hearing completely in tears while my boyfriend held my hand and told me I was strong.
I didn’t feel strong. I felt scared and guilty.
After the initial hearing, a sentencing date was set almost two months in the future. On that day, I arrived along with one other victim, prepared to once again face the perpetrator and then speak about the personal impact of his assault on me, only to be told that the hearing would be rescheduled. That rescheduled hearing was rescheduled again for a Monday, then rescheduled around 3:00 p.m. the Friday before it was due to take place. Let me just take a minute to express gratitude for the privilege I possess in a workplace that affords its employees schedule flexibility and that has leaders who genuinely care about their people.
The re-re-rescheduled hearing took place yesterday afternoon. I once again faced this man whose self-described prank has continued to affect me in insidiously subtle ways for months, along with members of his family who would seek to vilify me and the other victims who were courageous enough to speak to their experience.
Below is the impact statement I gave, in front of Rosemarie-freaking-Aquilina no less, with some slight artistic liberties to smooth out the end because I didn’t have the emotional energy before the trial to write a true ending and ended up ad-libbing.
You don’t know me. The extent of who I am to you is a woman who happened to run across your path on a morning when you were searching for someone to attack.
I believe you when you say you don’t know why you targeted women for what you described as a prank. I believe you when you say you don’t know why you chose the specific action of hitting from behind. But even unconscious to you, those choices were intentional. They were informed by a society that teaches us that women’s bodies are public property, and that a woman’s right to safety is superseded by a man’s right to do whatever the hell he pleases.
You don’t know that I was groped in my sleep when I was sixteen by someone I thought was a friend, who then was told it was my fault and I must have liked it because “no one could sleep through that” and “I looked so good in that blue dress. What was he supposed to do?” Or that a man who I thought loved me forcibly revealed himself to me when I was eighteen, then laughed at me when I turned away in panic. Or that I was manipulated by past partners who used sex and intimacy as weapons to punish me until I relented and gave them what they wanted.
I am telling you these things not because they are your sins to bear, but because every time someone’s autonomy is stolen, she relives every time before. I was the last woman to report what you did to me because, at the time, I told myself it wasn’t a big deal. I’d been through worse, at the hands of men who claimed to love me. It didn’t feel important enough, even as my body bruised and my heart started flooding with memories of each other experience.
What was different this time is that I don’t know you. I was chosen not because of a bond of trust, but because I was there. Because I had committed the crime of existing while female near someone who wanted to exercise control over a female body. In some ways, that makes it worse. It really fucks with your head in a special way when you’re reminded that your body is not your own and that nowhere is safe. That any random person can decide he wants to take a piece of me to feel the thrill of power over someone he deems lesser.
The next time, it might not be a hit from behind. It might be something worse.
I don’t believe you stole this safety from me out of malice. Maybe you did, and I’m giving you too much credit. But I believe it’s much more likely that you were just exercising the perceived right our society gives you as a man to do what you want without thinking of the person attached.
We are here today because you need to be accountable for the crime you have committed against me and four other women. But I don’t believe that accountability comes in the form of jail time. What good does it do to take a young man, who probably doesn’t understand the weight of what he has done, and throw him in jail to grow resentful and potentially more violent toward women?
Five souls have already been hurt. What sense does it make to risk permanently damaging another instead of trying to heal it? Our lives and our healing matter, but so does your life and your healing. You matter to me. What happens to you because of this matters to me. I want you to come out of this experience a better man, not a resentful one. I want you to have the opportunity to learn how what we do never exists in a vacuum and I want you to take that opportunity with sincerity and commitment.
If you choose to accept the chance to grow, I hope every soul you encounter becomes a little better. Because this isn’t just about you, or me, or the other women you assaulted. This is about our daughters and sons, our friends and family who will continue to live in a system that mostly tells us these things are okay.
The first time I went for a run alone after the assault, a passing biker sent me into a panic attack so severe I didn’t know if I could complete it. It’s been nearly three months, but I ran past the place where you assaulted me for the first time a couple of weeks ago and my breath still caught with a little bit of panic. I gripped my mace a little tighter, holding it out and ready to be used, like it wasn’t the day I was attacked.
I have struggled with an anxiety disorder for most of my life, symptoms of which have returned at seemingly random and frustrating times. I have wanted to return to the compulsions of my old anorexic patterns of restriction to try to control these feelings I don’t understand or don’t feel justified in feeling in the first place. I’ve struggled to be present in my own life, to be a good friend and a good partner, because I have been so distracted by this untraceable pain and dread of feeling my safety and autonomy taken away.
No person deserves to feel this pain or uncertainty, and I hope no one will feel these things by your hand again.
I have run half-marathons, a Spartan race, and completed a 200-hour yoga teacher certification program. I have graduated in the top 7 percent of my class at a Big Ten university, navigated unbelievably toxic work environments, and had the courage to exit emotionally toxic relationships. In most aspects of my life, I don’t fuck around. But standing at the podium in that courtroom, speaking some of the most vulnerable words I have ever spoken, was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Judge Aquilina told me that my compassion in the face of this tremendous hurt is a sign of strength. She said I was a superhero for speaking up not just for myself, but for the scores of women who can’t. Yesterday, I felt the incredible weight of this collective burden we carry. But I also felt my strength helping to cast a small piece of that burden away. My heart is still heavy with the complexity of my feelings about what happened to me and what happened to my assailant because of his own actions.
The man who assaulted me will spend a minimum of four months in jail completing educational courses on sexual assault, rape culture, and toxic masculinity. He will have a minimum of three years supervised probation when he is released, and he will register as a sex offender. He cannot be within 500 feet of me, my home, or any of his other victims and their homes. There is a piece of me that wants to take this burden as my own because I chose to report what he did to me, even though he chose his actions that day and on the days of those four other assaults.
I have the incredible gift of a strong support system, including a compassionate partner who has continued to prioritize my healing and growth. Loving a partner through trauma is not easy, especially when that partner tries to spend more time minimizing her trauma instead of owning her pain. I am finally ready to feel my pain without feeling guilty or unworthy of it, and from that feeling will come healing.
Rosemarie Aquilina is right. I am a superhero.