Me, too


A few months after turning thirty, I stood on the bank of the Yukon River with my closest woman friend and a guy who had picked us up hitchhiking. That moment was, I believed at the time, the apotheosis of my personal power and my freedom. I had not been raised to be there. A woman, a Jew, an intellectual, I had made myself into an adventurer, and I had arrived in the land of Sergeant Preston of the Yukon, a TV hero from the days of my childhood.

Eleven years later, at four o’clock on a Sunday afternoon, I was grabbed from behind by a male jogger on a wooded trail in an urban park, a trail I had hiked nearly every day for nine months. “I want some pussy,” the man stated repeatedly, as he removed my shorts and tore off my underpants. I kicked, bit, scratched. I screamed, over and over, because it seemed to scare him. I yelled despite his response — one punch in the face for every scream, a futile attempt to shut me up. I struggled to make good judgments, evaluating my slim chances for escape and wondering how many blows to the head I could sustain.

Perhaps he wondered, too, because eventually he let me go, badly beaten and not, in the most technical sense, raped. But in the instant I realized that the man was serious, I knew my life was forever changed. He stole my freedom, my innocence, my sense of adventure. He stole my major form of meditation, my major form of exercise. He damaged my soul.

Supposedly this scenario — Little Red overtaken in the forest by the big bad wolf/man — is every woman’s nightmare. It had never been mine. If I thought about it at all, I thought I was formidable in my walk, my carriage, my body language; while men might harass me or expose themselves (and strangers did both, on my solo rambles), I never really feared that one would try to rape me. In my first four decades, none did. “Now I see,” I wrote a few days after I met the wolf in the woods, “I have perceived myself not merely as tough but as invulnerable.” I had been released from the hospital with one eye swollen closed, deep purple covering a quarter of my face; on the second morning, the good eye had begun to blacken, too. It hurt to brush my hair, it hurt to open my mouth wide enough to get a spoon in, it hurt to chew, and it hurt to walk. At night it hurt to turn in my sleep. Struggling to read the computer screen with one eye, I wrote, to make sense of what only the pain could make me believe: that this had happened, to me.

For years, I had kept my adventures afloat by denying the possibility of evil. When I lived in another city I ran daily by a river; though most of the trail could be seen from the road, one stretch of less than a quarter mile went through the woods. It was in those woods that I got to watch the seasons change. And it was in those woods one day that I ran by a woman’s underpants and the scattered contents of her purse. I continued to run there, though bits of debris — a mascara tube, a piece of mirror — stayed on the trail for months, fragmentary remains of an incident I never allowed myself to imagine until it happened to me. I was aware of danger, in that city, when I walked at night. But I needed my stretch of woods, and I needed the freedom to run, at least in the day.

When the worst did happen, I discovered that I was not alone in my denial. My friends did not believe it would happen to them, either. A woman in Seattle spoke as if sexual assault is something that happens on the East Coast. A friend in another Eastern city recounted someone else’s bad tale about my town, suggesting that these sorts of things happen only here. A friend two miles away localized it to the park: she said she had never felt comfortable about my walks. But in the instant of my attack, I learned that if it could be me, it could be them, and it could be you, even if you stay out of the park on Sunday afternoons. This is not something I want to know, about any of us.

Worse, if it could be this, it could be something else. “If this happened to me,” I wrote while the evidence on my body was that it had, “then it can happen to me, and if this can happen, so can anything. How can I live with this; what will it mean? I liked better a way of life that assumed that nothing bad would occur.” Since anything could happen, I was at first afraid of everything. I could not drive for fear of accidents; I could not walk even on sidewalks for fear of people coming up behind me; I could not concentrate on a friend’s conversation in a restaurant when another diner brushed by our table on his way to the men’s room.

I suppose there are worse ways to lose innocence than attempted rape and successful assault and battery. In war and torture, people suffer repeatedly, without a chance to heal. And I have healed, though the scars are still painful. I drive all the time, but I cannot seek solitude in nature, once a central pleasure of my life. I remained afraid for years afterwards, when I walked by myself on any but the most crowded city sidewalks; for at least a decade, a jogger coming from behind on an asphalted trail would give me an adrenaline rush. And it took me years to integrate constant fear into my personality. I didn’t know how to live, knowing that bad things happen, yet not wanting to exist in a cage, confined for my own protection.

During the summer of Sergeant Preston I thought a lot about fear, backpacking in woods where grizzly bears lived. Precautions can be taken to keep from encountering them. My friend and I were careful not to eat in our tent, but we stopped short of a practice some hikers have, tying bells to their packs so bears can hear them coming. I considered this at length, walking for hours every day. You may meet a mugger while visiting Manhattan, I decided, and you may meet a bear while visiting the northern woods. Either place presents risks. But if you hang a bell on yourself, you have to listen to it all day. You will never hear the birds or the wind, and you will be reminded constantly of the possibility of bear attack. You will have framed your life with the fear of bears.

Such a worldview does not disappear overnight. “I vote for courage over living in fear,” I wrote with some bravado four days after the assault, when I was hurting from bruises everywhere, itching from poison ivy on my back, hiding in the house with a face like Hedda Nussbaum’s, angry to be embarrassed about something patently not my fault. Three years later, I had not changed my vote. But situations that in the past never seemed like occasions for either courage or fear were now charged with both. I tried to walk alone again, but my adrenaline surged when I saw a parked car, when I heard a driver slowing down, when a solitary man came near. There was evil out there.

And yet, my encounter had not been with some abstract evil, but with another person. For five or ten minutes, I responded to him and evaluated his responses to me. He had me caught: I was not strong enough to escape. At first I tried to plead to this other person’s humanity, to whatever was decent in him. But not for long. He was acting less humane than anyone I had ever encountered, and could not be counted on to listen to my pleas. So I screamed even though he hit me, even though I did not believe that anybody else would hear me, in despair and anger and rebellion.

It was a physical encounter, a sexual encounter, an intimate encounter. This is not the orthodox line, which says that rape is a crime of violence “rather than” one of sex. But here’s the point: we were skin-to-skin. If I were to work at it (which I have not often done), I could probably still remember in my body what his body felt like, as I can dig up memories of long-ago lovers, their legs and their broad backs. I have seen this man fondle his penis in an attempt to make it hard; he has seen my pubic hair, my bare backside. As our bodies embraced in combat, this man and I met in the realm of our spirits, our psyches, and our souls, like the best of lovers.

Some part of me has to acknowledge what is not so different from my encounters with other men. I have read that many women entertain fantasies about being raped. I never did. But I have liked a bit of that “I want some pussy” attitude, coming to me instead of at me, coming from men I knew and trusted and loved, coming with good humor, as lustful, funky fun. My attacker was, as I admitted to the police artist, an attractive man. He didn’t smell bad. He wore nice jogging clothes and stylish eyeglasses. Although not of my race, he was a man of my class. (How many times I have struggled with that sentence over the years, knowing how much race matters to the every-woman’s-nightmare story and yet not understanding what difference it makes to mine.)

He looked like someone I could have met at a party, someone who at one point in my life could have charmed me into bed. Instead he tried to claim me as his, and when I told him I was mine, he called me a bitch, tried to fight me for sex, and punished me for not giving in. This was not just “I want some pussy” coming from a stranger; this was “I’ll smash your face in if I don’t get it.” And so it was unlike any sex I’ve known. The man’s limp penis did not make me feel rejected nor call for my reassurances nor spur me to sensual performance. And within seconds after he tore off my underpants, my bare bottom was the least of my concerns.

Men get raped in jail, a friend’s boyfriend protested later, in response to her feminist rendering of my tale. But women are vulnerable in the whole world: we are raped in our houses, on our vacations, in our offices when we work late. And we are raped because we are women. When a friend who makes his living as a philosopher and who is very careful with his words called my assault an “accident,” I protested. “It was an accident that it was you,” he explained. And he was right: I was attacked because I was there, and because I am female.

I was there because I was a woman of the late twentieth century. Wearing my running shoes and a pair of shorts that would have been indecent in the United States for most of its history but is now ordinary clothing, I went into a public park by myself to get exercise on a weekend afternoon. I followed a familiar trail. The few others who walked there were usually well-dressed like my attacker, pleasant-looking people whom I took to be doctors from the nearby hospital or residents of the beautiful neighborhood that borders the park. People nodded and smiled as they passed me. I thought I had the freedom to walk alone in an urban park, a freedom few women have assumed until recently.

I was a woman of my time also in the aftermath, the beneficiary of decades of feminist work. A woman cop literally held my hand throughout six hours of detectives and doctors, six hours of shock and horror and everyday hospital delays. A rape crisis center brought me together with eleven other women to share tales of that horrible intimacy; I began to come to terms with my loss of innocence, my damaged freedom, and the common ground I shared with women whose attackers had wielded knives, guns, and erections. An extraordinary self-defense course taught me how to fight full force, how not to waste my time asking to be left alone. Bookstores and libraries, magazines and newspapers offered ways of understanding what had happened, a chorus of women’s voices that both angered and healed me.

The artist’s picture ferreted nobody out. I was relieved: I wouldn’t have to see him, wouldn’t have to worry about whether I was identifying someone correctly. I was just as glad to get this man out of my life. Eventually I stopped writing to the detective and paid the medical bills to fend off the collection agencies; my eligibility for victim assistance depended on my case going to court. I began to mark anniversaries of the attack. By the third one, new events had begun to supplant it; when that day came, I was already crying about the death of my Yukon companion, three weeks before in a car crash. Anything really can happen.

Now thirty more years have passed. I worry about the women I see running alone, coming out of the woods as I drive through the park. Yet I am glad that some women feel free. I am not willing to cede all of public space, and I am still working my way out of the cage, bending some bars, still trapped by others.