If you ask most people to describe an influential teacher, they will pick an inspirational person who taught them in school or on a job. For me, however, I learned one of my most important life skills from a man who sexually assaulted me when I was 22 years old. I am sure you may be wondering how this is possible, but I think you will understand after I describe what happened, and how I used the knowledge gained from a terrible experience to protect myself subsequently.
First of all, my experience did not adhere to what many people may expect regarding the circumstances surrounding a sexual assault. It happened at 9:30 a.m. on a beautiful, sunny summer day in an upscale neighborhood of Louisville, Ky. I was wearing an old, loose, sleeveless white blouse like your aunt might have worn to work in the garden, and some ratty shorts. I had on no make-up and ugly black glasses because I was searching in the gutter in front of my apartment for the contact lens case I had dropped the night before. My hair was a short, boyish cut that I likely had barely combed. In other words, no one’s idea of a seductress.
The guy who attacked me was probably on his way to work. He was nicely dressed in blue polyester pants and an off-white ‘70s shirt with small blue flowers. If he had waited on me at a local retail store, I would have never suspected his violent tendencies. He was a little chunky and probably in his late 20s or early 30s. He followed me into my apartment because I left the door open behind me. I am sure he intended to grab me from behind, but I must have heard him because I turned around. He was startled and turned his head and put his hand up to try to hide his face.
At first I assumed he was the guy who lived next store with his wife; I had never really seen them or introduced myself. My alarm bells went off pretty quickly though when I saw his reaction to my questions.
Looking back I realize that if I had kept advancing on him and been more aggressive in my questioning, I honestly think I would have backed him out of the apartment. But once he said he would kill me if I did not comply, I just froze. Then the whole power structure changed. Before I acquiesced, he was as frightened and anxious as I was. Once I gave in, his whole demeanor changed. His voice got deeper. His commands were practiced and specific, and he got what he wanted within 5 minutes. In other words, he had done this before.
Of course after it was over, I was just happy I had survived. I wanted only to forget what had happened and move on. I did tell my roommate and she told her parents who owned the apartment house. I did NOT tell my parents – I’m sure they would have demanded that I move home and I wanted to maintain my freedom. I also did not want to contact the police. I didn’t want to discuss my sexual history, but more importantly, I had absolutely no memory of what the guy’s face looked like. It was as if my mind literally put one of those blurs on his face that you see in news reports to hide someone’s identity. To this day, his face is just a tan blob.
Many times afterward, I thought about what I could have done differently to prevent what happened. I vowed to myself that if I were ever faced with a similar situation, I would handle it differently. Little did I know that eight years later, I would have such an encounter.
A different outcome
That time I was attending a training session at a hospital in Hickory, N.C. I came out of the conference center after most people had left, but it was 4:30 in the afternoon so I felt totally safe. I also knew that there was a security guard that drove around the two parking lots all day long. I was in the lower parking lot, and I saw the guard drive into the other one on his golf cart.
I was getting ready to get into my car, when a young man approached me and asked what time it was. I told him, but he didn’t move on.
He just stood close to my car and stared at me with a strange half smile. He seemed a little anxious and again my alarm bells went off. My neighbor had recently been abducted in Hickory and put into the trunk of her car. I decided I would not put myself in a similar situation.
I had my key in the car door to open it but I deliberately re-locked my car and turned to fully face this young man. I am not a large or muscular person, but I did everything I could to stand tall and pull my shoulders back to make myself look as big and strong as I could. My first instinct had been to sink into myself and just quickly get into that car, but I knew if I got off balance trying to get in, he would likely push me in and get in after me. I also wanted someone to see us.
My mind was racing – reliving what I had experienced in Louisville, but also trying to size up this situation. How big is he? Is he alone? Does he have a weapon? Where is that stupid security guy when I need him? But most of all I was telling myself: ‘Calm down and memorize everything about this guy’s face – you cannot blank out again.’
It is amazing when you focus on something concrete how the panic subsides and becomes more manageable.
I kept telling this man to get away from my car and get away from me in a very firm and direct voice. He did not move. I could tell, however, that he was confused. This was not going the way he expected. He was beginning to sway nervously and his eyes were beginning to dart around. I just kept hoping someone would show up, but we were all alone.
Finally I saw that telling him to get away was not having the desired effect. So I just said to him, “If you do not get away from me and my car, I am going to find the security guard and tell him about YOU.” And I just moved toward him at the back of the car and strode past him determined to find help. That was the final blow; he took off running in the opposite direction – never looking back.
Once he was gone, I got in my car as fast as possible. I could barely drive because my legs were shaking so badly, but I did manage to find the security guard and tell him about what happened and what the guy looked like. I probably should have stayed longer to make a police report, but I just wanted to get home.
To this day, I think about my Louisville experience every time I enter a house or hotel room alone or whenever I go into a parking lot by myself. I never leave a door open behind me, and I scan all parking lots with my keys pointed out through my hands so I could do some damage to an attacker if one ever approached again. Even though it has been 40 years, that guy in Louisville has continued to influence how I conduct myself and how I see the world. I will never forget him and the lessons that I learned from him that day.
Editors note: This piece was first written for an OLLI memoir writing class as a result of a writing prompt about memorable teachers.