Thirteen years ago today – December 23, 2001 – changed my life.
I was a freshman at college and had come home for Christmas break. My friend Sara had an apartment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and I decided on a Saturday night to go visit her. Sara and I had been best friends since junior high; I had been looking forward to seeing her all fall while I was away at school.
Being Michigan in December, it was supposed to snow that night. So, as a concession to my dad, I decided to stay the night at Sara’s apartment, and get up early on Sunday the 23rd to drive the 45 minutes to church in the morning so I wouldn’t have to drive in the dark late at night.
So it was early – around 6:00am or so – when I walked out of her apartment.
As I walked to my car, I saw a man approaching. I glanced at him, casually said, “Good morning,” and kept walking. As I got to my car, I heard his voice:
“Get in the car.”
I turned around and stared at him.
“This is a gun. Get in the car.”
Without getting into all the details of what happened, I’ll say that I had accidentally left my keys in Sara’s apartment, so I couldn’t drive him to… wherever he – well, we – were going. He took my wallet, told me that he knew where I lived and if I ever called the cops he’d come kill me. He had me get out of the car, walk behind the apartment building, and told me to take off all my clothes.
Thankfully, he never touched me. I think he really did need to get somewhere, or wanted the money, or something, and he used the shame of my body to keep me from running. He understood that I was in a vulnerable position, and he used that to control my actions.
He dumped out my purse onto the ground and threw it and all my clothes into the woods nearby. He came back and told me not to move.
After a few minutes, I noticed that, when he dumped my purse, my phone had fallen out. Keep in mind, these were not only pre-smart-phone days; they were pre-flip-phone days! My phone – get this – had actual, real, buttons. The phone fell button-side down, in a portion of grass that had not yet been covered with snow. Dawn was just beginning to break, so he didn’t see my phone. I called Sara, who let me in through the sliding door in the back of her apartment.
Sara and her roommate convinced me – and it took a good bit of convincing – to call the police.
As unprepared as I was to be robbed that morning, I was even more unprepared for what happened next.
The police? They didn’t believe me. They heard my story, went to the scene, and decided that I was just a college girl looking for attention.
Seriously. That’s what they told me.
The police – two men in probably their late 50s – told me that I “didn’t respond how a woman in [my] situation should respond.” I appeared calm and at peace – because, 1. I was thankful to be alive, and 2. They couldn’t see what was happening internally.
But they made a judgment about how I appeared and decided I must be lying. SURELY they knew how *I* should act in the “alleged” situation. They thought that, if someone had actually robbed me and forced me to strip, I would be hysterical. Since I wasn’t, they concluded that – certainly – I had done it to myself.
The next week, my dad called the Sheriff’s office. They told him that, given that Sara’s apartment was near a state college campus, they – and I quote – “get too many reports of sexual assault to take them all seriously.”
They ended up sending a deputy to my house to officially apologize. I had gone out of town with some friends to get my mind off the trauma, so I wasn’t even there to hear the apology (though, I tend to think they were apologizing more to my dad than to me, anyway…).
Now, I want to be clear that I am not anti-police. That’s a caveat that we need to name these days, it seems. I understand these men were just doing their jobs – and I’m sure they had been burned by women falsely accusing men in the past. I am not saying they were being malicious or had ill-will; I am sure they responded based on their experiences, just as I responded based on mine.
But I needed to be believed. Even if the man was never caught, I needed to know that the police were on my side… and I didn’t.
This is important because my story is not isolated. In fact, many women – and men – have had much worse happen to them, though their stories have fallen on the same ears refusing to listen. The same overworked and underpaid police officers. The same college administrators who studied to be educators and administrators, and found themselves in the unwanted position of also being criminal justice specialists and detectives. The same military commanders who have to balance their force readiness with another letter on their desk. The same reporters who are too scared of becoming an example to print what they’re hearing. The same pastors who cannot bear to report a loved deacon, the same mothers who cannot bear to report their husbands.
The same structures that have doubted the words of women and deferred to the words of men for centuries.
I recently read a book that recounted the work of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. He began to study hysteria among the young bourgeois girls of France in the late 1800s. What he found was appalling: Most of these girls had been sexually abused. To make a long (and rather interesting) story short, he soon discovered that his funding would disappear if he published his results.
His response? To start blaming the victims. To publish new “studies” that these young girls were suffering mental and emotional trauma… because of their own shameful sexual fantasies and desires.
Victim-blaming has come a long way in the last century or so, fortunately. At least now we have a way to name it when it happens and to call attention to its fallacy.
But we need to do better. We need to not let the few who are lying feed the narrative that rape culture doesn’t exist or is over-hyped. We need to teach our boys AND our girls that every person has autonomy over their own body. When victims come forward, we need to take them seriously. We need to hold space for their stories and affirm they were not at fault.
We need to do better because there is a man out there, somewhere, who did that to me, and because similar and worse crimes had been done to so many other women – let me say that again: BECAUSE similar and worse crimes had been done to so.many.other.women. – he was allowed to take both my money and my dignity without investigation. We need to do better because I have two daughters, and because I have a son. We need to do better because there are women and men in our churches and our schools and our communities – and maybe even our families – who have been sexually assaulted or harassed and have never come forward because of our culture of victim-blaming. We need to do better because to deny a person’s agency over their body and sexuality is to deny their humanity: to deny who God has created them to be.
We need to do better. We need to listen.
I read the story of Jean-Martin Charcot in Trauma and Recovery, which I highly recommend.
For another helpful perspective on this, I recommend an article Jim Wallis wrote just this week: The Myth of Crying Rape