The Story of a Sister Survivor
Editor’s Note: The following piece poses two challenges to The Commentator’s norms. Generally we do not publish anonymous pieces, as they do not provide accountability. For reasons the author outlines, in maintaining anonymity we hope to avoid future harm to the author. As an editorial board we take responsibility for the veracity of the events told in the piece.
Secondly, this piece contains graphic content. After consulting with YU Roshei Yeshiva and professors, both Jewish studies and general studies, at the Beren and Wilf campuses, we have decided that it is appropriate to print.
There are some things in life that one can never imagine. No girl ever fantasizes about being a part of a national epidemic. No woman ever thinks that she too will be overpowered against her will by another person — let alone violated by a man, by one of her friends. It’s a naive approach, yet I am one of you and I too was one of those ignorant women who did not think that the unthinkable was possible: I too am a survivor of sexual assault and this is my story.
I remember the snapshot in my mind clear as day. I am standing outside his car on a warm summer’s evening. My bra, camisole, and blouse are in a bundle covering my chest. My arms hurt from being held down against my will. I am red in the face, from both anger and humiliation. I demand to be taken home or I say I’ll call the cops. Little did I know that the events of that evening would later shape the rest of my life.
It was July 2013. I was sixteen and in high school at the time: young, impressionable, trusting. I had just gotten a promotion at my Hebrew school job and I was eager to celebrate. My friend offered to take me out for ice cream that evening; he and I had initially met at a party and had not been strictly platonic in the past. I was planning on having a casual evening by myself when he suggested we celebrate my new job. He was seventeen, headed to a university in the Midwest at the end of the summer. He was tall, broad, was one of the best on his high school wrestling team and had played football in his high school, wanting to be a walk-on on the university’s team. He had gorgeous eyes and a sweet baby face. He was a camp counselor at the local JCC and loved Twitter and playing sports with friends. He was so innocent-looking and I trusted him and his friendship; I didn’t ever think he would hurt me, so I gladly said yes to seeing him.
My parents dropped me off at a local ice cream parlor and told me not to be home too late. My friend said they need not worry as he would drop me off. We hung around the ice cream parlor and jumped to a coffee shop about an hour later. The evening looked promising as we made conversation and enjoyed each other’s company. About 9:30 PM, he suggested we go on a drive. I was a little leery, but I agreed and hopped in the passenger’s seat of his car. We drove around for a little while before pulling into a deserted lot. He parked the car and suggested we move things to the back seat of his car.
“I’m not sure.” I recall muttering; I hadn’t planned on doing anything too physical.
“Come on,” he pushed, “I’m leaving for school next month. Let’s have a little fun.”
Once I agreed, I told him I needed to be home by 10, so we couldn’t take long. To be honest, I was reluctant as we climbed into the backseat of his car. I was not sure if I was comfortable with fooling around in any way in the first place that evening, but we had done so in the past, so I didn’t think it would be any different this time around. We began to make out and before I knew it, he was taking off my shirt and bra. We had been passionate in the past, but he had never been so rough and had not rushed like this before. Woah there, I thought, we’re moving too fast! This wasn’t my first time fooling around with a guy, but something didn’t feel right about this time. While he was kissing my neck, I tried to find my phone, but I was unsuccessful. Where is it? I wondered. I have to go. I felt around with my hand and found his phone; I clicked the screen and realized it was 10:30, much later than I had planned.
“I need to get going,” I said, trying to get his arms off of me, “my parents will worry!”
“Five more minutes,” he pleaded.
“No! Get off!” I said to my friend. “I need to go.”
“Five more minutes,” he said once again, “I’ll even set a timer, see?”
He began to fiddle with his phone and before I could even know what was happening, he unzipped his jeans and began shoving his genitalia towards my face. He began rubbing it against my bare breasts and asked me to perform oral sex on him. I heard the alarm go off on his phone in the background as I began to scream as he held my upper arms tight in his grip. He wrapped his large wrestler legs around the back of mine in an effort to restrain me. I was trapped and I did not know how to escape.
By some miracle of God, I contorted my body in a way that I was able to use all of my weight to drop me to the floor of the vehicle. I pulled him down and he released his grip as I hit the floor. I quickly grabbed the handle of the passenger’s door and tumbled out of the car. I grabbed my bundle of clothing and began to run away from the car to make sure I was able to escape. He quickly closed his pants and called out after me. I realized my purse and phone were still in the car; I had to go back.
I was initially hesitant to head back towards the vehicle as I was scared that he would attempt to violate me yet again. I quickly threw on my top and approached the car in order not to be indecent. Eventually, though I was scared senseless, I mustered up the courage to go back to his car because I had no other means of getting home unless I walked, but it was over a mile away and I was in shock, not having thought of this option at the time. I don’t know where the ability to take charge came from within me, but I found my voice and told him that he had to take me directly home or I would call the police as soon as I found a phone. He agreed so I got into the back, and I sat with my body crammed against the car door where I would be out of his reach.
When he sat in the driver’s seat, he handed me back my phone, which had apparently been in his pocket the entire time. The bastard, I thought to myself, he planned to take that. Was he thinking about forcing himself on me the entire time? I quickly fixed my blouse in the car in order not to alarm my parents and we sat in silence as he drove me home. My insides were churning and I wanted to scream and cry all at once. When he pulled in front of my house, I said not a single word. It was after 11 PM and my father was waiting for me at the door as I rushed past him saying I “needed to use the bathroom.” I rushed upstairs and slammed the bathroom door behind me as I began to wash my hands profusely. I scrubbed my hands for what seemed like an eternity to try and remove the gross feeling of grime I had felt, but it did not work. I kept looking at myself in the mirror - my makeup smudged, my hair a mess. My arms were red, as were my legs. I felt weak and I thought I was going to faint. I wanted to cry, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know what was happening.
I stayed in the bathroom for several hours until I nearly collapsed from sheer exhaustion. I was trying to process what had happened to me. How could my friend try to hurt me like this? I tried to process, but no immediate answers came to mind. Was it planned? Was it because I’ve fooled around in the past? Was it my fault because I had aroused him? I said “no” this time, doesn’t that count? My head hurt and I began to feel weak. Was it because of the way I was dressed? Had I provoked him? Was I “asking for it?” Was this my fault? Questions began to swirl around in my mind as I tried to grip my new reality. Had I become a statistic? Did my friend just try to assault me?
My reality began to set in over the next few days and weeks. I became very quiet and refused to make conversation; I barely ate and threw up several times; I couldn’t sleep at night and would cry in my bed. I was startled any time someone came from behind and tried to talk to me; I began to become very paranoid about being alone. I refused to go anywhere alone and became very dependent on spending time with my parents when we were out, all the while isolating myself when I was home. I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt and could not explain how or why. I refused to mention the incident for a long time and became extremely sensitive to every hug and touch from others. I felt an overarching sense of guilt and blamed myself for the assault that had occured.
Bruises formed on my upper arms from having been held down against my will and on my legs from kicking and using my feet to propel me out of his car. I began wearing baseball tees to hide my black and blue’s and wore leggings to cover my legs, claiming I was “cold” to my concerned parents. They thought I was simply sick as I was not eating or sleeping well and was wearing long clothing in the middle of the summer - that or I had begun to “flip out” and become a “frimmer,” as my mother calls it. But that could not have been farther from the truth. I was not sick and I was in fact very angry with God. How could He let this happen? I refused to face the facts that I, too, had become a statistic - that I, too, had been sexually assaulted, and by someone I knew and called a friend nonetheless. I lived in denial for several months and became an emotional wreck that neither my friends nor my family wanted to spend time with anymore. They did not know what had gotten into me, but simply thought I was going through a phase. But it was not a phase, it was my way of coping.
For me, the realization that I had become another statistic occurred while I one day felt inclined to see what my friend had been up to on Twitter. I had refused all contact prior that he had tried to initiate following that fateful night and had un-friended him on Facebook. Because he was an avid Tweeter, I knew I would be able to see what he had been doing. But nothing could prepare me for the Tweet I would read from that horrible evening:
“Not proud of myself right now,” the Tweet read describing our encounter from that evening. He added that he “felt slimy” and “you get what you get.”
The Tweet stared back at me, piercing my retinas and forever engraved in my mind. This was the only Tweet from that entire day and he did not post anything on Twitter for several days after. As my eyes remained glued to the screen, I could not believe what I was reading, especially coming from an event so traumatic. My blood boiled. Not proud?? How could he not see the error of his ways? I was searing with anger and pain, unable to process the emotions I was experiencing. I wanted to scream, I wanted to do anything but sit there and look at the computer, but I felt numb, helpless, vulnerable, and alone. I felt I had nowhere to turn at the time and for the next few weeks, I continued to further isolate myself.
Eventually, I confided in the first person - a friend from a youth organization I was involved in. He and I both cried and I relayed my painful experience and he assured me everything would be okay. He told me I needed to tell an adult because I could not keep this information inside forever. He convinced me to tell my father, one of the most trusted people in my life. Initially, I refused and said I would do anything but that (which was a lie because I did not want to tell anyone). Ultimately, though, he convinced me I needed to tell my father. After much hesitation, I decided to tell him while we were on a family vacation. He and I both cried when I told him; he was mortified that someone had laid their hands on his little girl and felt helpless for being unable to assist me sooner. I begged my father not tell another soul, especially not my mother. We cried and hugged as there was not much else to be done.
Nearly five years have gone by and a lot has changed since then. I have sought professional help for the trauma I experienced and completely rid my life of my perpetrator — who continued to attempt to contact me and treat me like we were friends after the assault. I don’t talk often about this event in my life and my mother and siblings still don’t know that it occurred. For those who do know this story, I am completely emotionally detached from the the tale in order not to send myself into an anxiety attack. I am still triggered by stories from others where friends were the perpetrators of the heinous crimes and still occasionally have panic attacks. I refuse to allow my family to park in that very lot where the offense occurred and do not drive through it on my own. I never pressed charges and recently learned my assailant was arrested for an unrelated crime.
I have also received a couple of answers to the questions I asked myself nearly five years ago. I have learned the truth that I had known all along but refused to believe: it was not my fault. I had not provoked my attacker and did not deserve that type of treatment. It was not because of the way I was dressed; saying “no” even though he was aroused was not a reason for him to try to violate me the way he did; I was not “asking for it.” There are still times when I feel a sheer sense of blame and guilt, but I try to remind myself that I did nothing wrong and had every right to say “no” to his advancement, even if he was turned on. It does not matter if he had planned this or if he had gotten caught up in the heat of the moment: what he did was wrong, not the other way around — “no” means no.
And while I am not ashamed of my story, I choose to remain nameless. I stay anonymous because of the shame I would face in a world obsessed with perfection in dating - especially shidduchim - and any baggage would ruin my prospects of finding a match. The epidemic of sexual assault is prevalent around the world and it pains me that religiously observant societies in particular would rather turn a blind eye to it. It is true that a woman’s value, in a certain sense, is defined in her ketubah by her sexual activity. But it is problematic when Orthodox Jewish communities respond by even looking down, implicitly or explicitly, upon victims of assault or rape (God forbid) as having diminished self-worth. There are those looking to draw attention to this problem in Orthodox Judaism like Meir Seewald and Jewish Community Watch, but sexual assault is still a stigmatized, shameful topic that is glossed over by most and is still thought to leave survivors as “tainted goods.”
I also choose not to reveal my name because my story is unfortunately far too common and not unique. This isn’t only my story, but the story of others around us. It is the story of many other Orthodox Jewish women who have chosen not to speak up out of fear that they would be ostracized. I am your peer, your classmate and - for some of you - your friend. I am your daughter, your sister, your cousin, even your mother. I am one of the millions of girls and women worldwide who has and will continue to experience sexual assault in her lifetime and will live with the scars — physical, emotional, and mental — to tell the story. I am not a victim — I refuse to be one; I am a survivor.
Recently, in the wake of courageous women telling their stories to the public about accused sexual predators like movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and convicted criminals like USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, sexual assault has taken front stage in discussions in the media and in popular culture. Unfortunately, the media has chosen to focus either too much on the perpetrator or the faults in society that caused this heinous crime to occur. But I suggest a different approach: a spotlight on the survivor and her story — focusing on the strong individual she is to overcome such a trauma and to tell her story on the other side. Sexual assault has long been something brushed under the rug and been something women are taught to be ashamed of; but it’s time to acknowledge that this is not something for women to be embarrassed of. The #MeToo movement has done just that and I posted my status on Facebook with pain and pride as I stood in solidarity with my sisters across many backgrounds. No longer can we hide behind these atrocities that occur to half of the population. It is time to acknowledge the epidemic of sexual assault once and for all, so that women can start stepping out of the shadows and nothing like my story and your stories can ever happen again.