The Women Who Helped Me After My Sexual Assault

And I wonder how I could have left these women out of my story, how I could have given all my attention to the men who had hurt me instead of the women who had helped me.

When I’ve told this story in the past, I’ve focused on two things:

  1. I was assaulted in a movie theater.
  2. When I tried to report the crime, the police officer convinced me it would be embarrassing to have my name associated with such a case.

Sometimes, when I’ve told this story, I’ve given details: It was a 10pm movie. I went by myself, taking a break from studying (it was 1987; I was 19, a sophomore in college.) The movie starred Kiefer Sutherland; the love interest was deaf; the title included the word “Moon.” I was wearing an orange and yellow hippie poncho that still smelled musty, like the thrift store where I had purchased it. My hair was in a ponytail. A man sat directly behind me in an otherwise empty theater. This felt weird, but I figured he was lonely and wanted to be close to another human being. I turned my head slightly and smiled. I couldn’t see him but wanted him to know I knew he was there. Later I wondered whether he took this to be an invitation. When I first felt one of my hairs snap, I thought a strand had gotten stuck between my body and the chair. Then another hair snapped, then another—pop pop pop pop. Before I could make sense of what was happening, my head was yanked violently backward, then yanked and yanked and yanked and yanked by the ponytail, as if he was trying to pull my head straight off my neck. I don’t recall screaming, but I must have screamed. In my state of shock and confusion and pain, I realized the man was pleasuring himself with my hair. Somehow I got away. I can remember the sticky floor as I reeled down the row of seats, the way each foot made a kissing sound as it lifted.

When I worked up the nerve to call the police from my dorm room later that night, after a long, long, shower, followed by a bath because I still didn’t feel clean, and the officer laughed and said “You don’t want your name attached to a masturbation case, now, do you?” I found myself flooded with shame, flooded with tears, my throat closing before I hung up the phone.

When I’ve told this story, I’ve focused on these two men—the man in the theater, the police officer who shut me down. I realize now I’ve left something out when I’ve told this story, maybe the most important part. I’ve left out the women.

I’ve left out the woman who said “Oh honey, what happened?” after I flopped onto the floor of my dorm lobby, shaking and crying, having crawled through the back window that was always left open after the front door was locked for the night. I probably wouldn’t have told anyone if she hadn’t been there and seen me in that state.

I’ve left out the woman who called the movie theater and said “A man did a really disgusting thing to my friend. Could you check and see if he’s still there and call the police if he is?” (He wasn’t.)

I’ve left out the woman who told me “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” a quote I had never heard before, and which truly did help at the time.

I’ve left out the woman who walked me to the counseling office on campus the next morning.

I’ve left out the women who cheered me on when I made the decision to not cut off my hair, to not give the man that power over my body.

I’ve left out the women, who, after they heard what happened, told me their own stories of assault. One by one, they came up to me and said “Me, too,” “Me, too,” “Me, too,” ushering me into a world I hadn’t known, a disturbing world where so many women had been violated; a powerful world where women support one another.

And I wonder how I could have left these women out of my story, how I could have given all my attention to the men who had hurt me instead of the women who had helped me. “Look for the helpers,” Mr. Rogers told us, but I didn’t have to look for them in 1987—they found me, these women, and I am so deeply grateful for them, many of whom I barely knew before the night of the assault. I wish I had acknowledged them before today, and vow that from this point forward, I will never leave them out of my story again.

Gayle Brandeis is the author, most recently, of The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide (Beacon Press). Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Salon, Longreads and many other publications. She teaches at Sierra Nevada College and Antioch University Los Angeles. 

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