Words by Chrissy Suttles
Photos by Jacob Byk
Standing within inches of the attack location more than 16 months later, this was the first time I visited the site after dark.
June 26, 2013, 5:30 a.m.
I wake up to the sputter of my visibly seasoned Ford Taurus, desperately clinging to life during its final moments of ardor. It lets out one last defeated chug before going completely silent as I rub my eyes and check the engine light, not realizing the needle on the fuel gauge had plunged to “E.” I wiggle my way to an upright position and peer through the windshield reluctantly, then back at the clock on my dashboard: 5:45 a.m. I lock my eyes on the ruddy-colored entrance to my homely apartment on the west side of Kent across from a community endearingly known as “Silver Ghettos.”
I know there’s nothing to be afraid of. I’m sure the lights and sirens scared him off. Still, I remain immobilized on the edge of the driver’s seat.
Hours go by before I realize I can’t be more than 60 feet from the door I’ve been staring at since before dawn. The full, strawberry moon is now completely tucked away and nature’s orchestra begins performing its concerto for a reposed audience. The restlessness begins to set in and I start drafting an escape. The sun’s up, protecting me from that which the moon often falls flat. I do a double take of my surroundings. Then a triple take. Before I pull the handle, I clutch my keys, one between each finger, to construct a fully formed set of claws, the most available weapon on hand. As I carefully shuffle up my driveway, head like a tilt-a-whirl, I think this is what it feels like to be hunted.
Sitting on the edge of my unmade bed, I can’t ignore what resembles charred skin around my knees and ankles. I delicately dab hydrogen peroxide on the wounds, cringing as the dirt and concrete bubble to the surface. I’m suddenly struck by the realization that in order to get to work on time, I need to make the mile-long trek to and from the gas station down the street on foot. I can hear my dad’s warnings about leaving the engine running overnight. “Girl, I oughta wring your neck,” he’d bluff if he were here and if circumstances were different.
I open my door, the striking summer sun penetrating the laceration in my left knee.
I remember the first time my mom allowed me to walk alone at night. After weeks of relentlessly pleading with her to let me “just walk around the block,” she eventually caved. At 13, I was living at my grandmother’s house after a bitter divorce that left my brother and I physically and emotionally displaced. Being a garden-variety teenager, I was not in the habit of following directions. I confidently trudged through miles of forest that night, mindfully working through my troubles. A love story began, but like all great romances, heartbreak was bound to ensue.
The previous night. June 25, 2013 11:00 p.m.
With tangled earbuds dangling from my hand, I throw on a pair of tiny, shrimp-colored shorts and a blue hoodie I “borrowed” from a friend without permission. “I have a bad feeling about tonight,” my boyfriend warns from 400 miles away. “If you’re gonna go out, be really careful.” I shake it off defiantly. Why should tonight’s walk be any different from the hundreds before? Strutting through the community adjacent to mine, and going nowhere in particular, I only stop to find a Pandora station more fitting to my cumbersome mood. I pass a number of street signs printed with a dark figure in a trench coat labeled “Neighborhood Watch” and wonder if anyone is really looking out for me.
As I turn left onto Suzanne Drive, a dark, abstract figure materializes in my peripherals. I swivel around, greeting the silhouette lurking alarmingly close. Being someone who gives others the benefit of the doubt, I choke out a friendly acknowledgement.
“Oh, you scared me,” I say, chuckling nervously.
“Sorry,” he mutters.
Subtly, I make my way across the street to deflect any unwanted attention from the stranger.
My body falls to the ground within a matter of seconds. It baffles me how someone with only two hands manages to suffocate and grope every inch of my body simultaneously. My consciousness starting to fade, I feel a tugging at my little pink shorts.
“Please, stop,” I beg with disappointing frailty.
“Do you like this, baby?”
At this inquiry, an unfamiliar medley of rage and panic I can only describe as primitive climbs from within me. Struggling for air, I sink my teeth into the calloused ring finger of what seems like the embodiment of the inky figure on the “Neighborhood Watch” sign.
Shouting stifled, unintelligible syllables, I shove my elbow into a ribcage.
A gust of breath leaves his lips, surprised by my blow. I’m on my feet for no more than 15 seconds before his hands lace my ankles again, dragging me through the dewy grass until my knees hit the concrete for a second time. His hands preoccupied, I let out a howl. The figure flees.
For a moment, I cast my gaze downward to the bloodstained concrete, Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence,” whimpering from the headphones dangling from my sweater pocket. I wonder where my neighborhood watchmen are.
June 26, 2013, 1:30 a.m.
It’s not until I hit Erie, Pennsylvania, that I turn around. Assuring police I had a “safe” place to go, I left the station and aimlessly drove for hours. It hits me how easily I could have been swept up and carried away. He was three times my size in both height and weight. “Had he been more determined, I could be rotting in his mother’s basement right now,” I tell myself, somewhere in Fairview. Logically, I know there is a slim chance he’ll try to find me. His assault was poorly executed, which suggests inexperience. But as someone who was molested only hours before, sitting in a protective metal chastity belt on wheels is the only recourse.
As I pull into my driveway, “safely” back in Kent, the exhaustion sets. I tilt my seat back and double check the rusty automatic locks and sleep, exhaust spewing from the tailpipe.
July 10, 2013. 7:45 a.m.
After several days of silence from the Kent Police Department, an aggressive knock wakes me up. A detective and his partner “just wanted to confirm the details” I neuorotically scribbled on the report that night, almost positive I had permanently imprinted the words on the back of the cop car I used as a hard surface.
“Now, we need to make sure you’re telling the truth so we don’t compromise any other investigations in the process of resolving yours,” the lanky man in a navy button-up says. “But we don’t want to sound accusatory,” his partner adds. A classic case of good-cop, bad-cop.
“We’ve seen you on KentWired, we don’t want this out there,” bad cop says, referencing my years in student media. Seems like the only thing they’ve thoroughly investigated is me.
No wonder sexual assault is one of the most underreported crimes, (about 60 percent of all sexual assaults are not reported to the police, according to Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.) Just a few minutes with the detectives, and I feel less like a survivor and more like a criminal.
The more details I give of the two-minute episode, the more it feels like a confession. “He was tall, dark skinned, with dreadlocks,” I tell them, again, as if they were waiting for an inconsistency. I know they’re just doing their job, but I wonder if they pose those same accusations at victims of less stigmatized crimes. They proceed to fill me in on possible video-footage of the attack, being an area of particularly high crime, and let me know when I can further assist the investigation.
That was 14 months ago and the last I’ve heard.
The list of suspects are all locals with a criminal background, one of which is homeless. I immediately looked all of them up on Facebook, only to be disappointed. Other than the vague descriptors I gave the police, I had no idea what my attacker looked like.
What surprised me is what happened as I browsed their profiles: Empathy. Anyone who could be considered for this type of crime has to be a psychopathic hermit living in an equally inept environment, I figured. What I found were photos of daughters, wives, sisters and mothers. Every suspect had proudly displayed images of the women in his life, some with toddlers beaming for the camera. And all at once, my attacker grew from a murky, one-dimensional object to a man capable of rational thought.
It hit me that the man who was determined to drag my lifeless body under the bridge to fulfill a sadistic fantasy might have fled to his wife and daughter as he tossed me to the ground. He kissed that same wife goodbye as he headed to work the following morning, completing unsatisfying, remedial tasks for hours, eagerly awaiting the nighttime walk he tells his wife “helps him unwind.”
I think this contributes to the illusion that perpetrators of sexual assault are not in control of their actions, which ultimately leads to victim blaming. After I mustered the courage to start discussing what happened with loved ones, I was met with a lot of allegations masked as support. “You should’ve known better than to walk at night,” a close friend said, sympathetically. “Men can’t control themselves if you make it that easy.” Imagine how ridiculous that excuse would sound in court.
“Mr. Brown, you’re charged with 22 counts of embezzlement and obstruction of justice, how do you plead?
“Not guilty, Your Honor, on account of testes.”
To assume men as a unit are uncivilized, testosterone-fueled sex-fiends incapable of controlling their impulses not only does an injustice to men, but further enables the paltry sum of those who are to be acquitted of their actions based on antiquated notions of what a man is and should be.
But this sentiment is gradually changing with heightened conversation. Statistically, the estimated annual rate of female rape or sexual assault victimizations declined by 58 percent from 1995 to 2010, according to federal crime data.
In the City of Kent alone, rape has decreased by more than 28 percent since 2012, aggravated assault by more than 32 percent.
Even President Obama issued a memorandum to combat the still-prevalent rape culture on college campuses. In it, he strongly encourages men to stay active in an offense they are almost entirely responsible for ending. The White House agreed to lend resources to any state-funded university struggling to address sexual assault, as well as review existing laws that may hinder perpetrators of sex crimes to be charged to the desired extent.
“For anybody whose once-normal, everyday life was suddenly shattered by an act of sexual violence, the trauma, the terror can shadow you long after one horrible attack,” the president said in his September 19 address.
For me, though, that “one horrible attack” cast very few long-term shadows.
Oct. 1, 2014, 4:32 p.m.
It may seem as if my story jumps forward too abruptly; as if there’s a level of self-examination missing. That’s because while my experience changed how I operate on a chemical level, I wouldn’t say it was a defining moment in my life. At times, the rustling of leaves may startle me after dark, but that doesn’t stop me from trudging through them.
During the courtesy visits I paid to a therapist months later, I learned the numbness I experienced was a lesser-known side effect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. While common symptoms include flashbacks, anger and shame, I was aloof, avoidant and detached. After the initial shock wore off, I hardly thought about that night. The woman with the Ph.D. in psychology says my mind will eventually want to work through the trauma, and to see her when it does.
I offer a different explanation: Although my body was dragged, beaten and molested, my dignity went unscathed.
The trivial degree to which my assailant affected my daily life puts others in an uncomfortable position. People treat sexual assault like a death in the family. They choke out awkward sympathies, offering you a shoulder to cry on. But I don’t feel like I lost anything.
I wish I had some sort of uplifting, Upworthy-style message about my experience. You’d think a sexual assault would warrant it: “You won’t BELIEVE what this college student did after her molestation! At 3:25, I completely lost it.” My story won’t be going viral, because I’ve still yet to find the silver lining. This is just one of many struggles I’ll face in my lifetime, and like all of those, I’ve only grown from the experience. It’s taken some time, but I’ve let go of how I’m supposed to feel.
These things don’t have to send you into a spiralling depression, hoarding guilt in every corner of your mind. Who knows? I might find myself in an overpaid psychiatrist’s itchy lounge chair a decade from now, staving off demons from my youth.
As for now, I’m fine.
This curb is about 250 feet away from the site. Ironically, it’s one of the busiest areas in the community.