A Message to My Assailant: Lessons on Being Human.
This is the first time in twelve years that I’ve written publicly about an assault that took place my senior year of high school; though I had a stomach ache for hours after its publication on The Good Men Project, I had to write this, if only for myself.
The attacker was a man I trusted, a teacher I admired; perhaps this has been the most difficult aspect of the attack, why it has been such a challenge to separate the event from my everyday life.
On the advice of a friend, I went back there. I went back to being a teenager, back to the halls of my high school, back to standing in a small, dark room filled with chemicals and photography equipment. I went back to have that cigarette that betrayed me.
And though the feelings swirled and strangled as fiercely as the day they first arrived, I was able to come home when the words were out. I was allowed to hug the man who loves me, I was allowed to cry different tears… tears of release. I was allowed to look around and see all that I’ve become in spite of this scar.
This doesn’t fix me, this doesn’t fix anything. Maybe that’s not the point. But until we face these dark moments, we can’t give ourselves permission to experience the light. And we all–even him–deserve the light.
“Forgiveness is the fragrance that the violet sheds on the heel that has crushed it.” Mark Twain
It’s been years since we last saw one another in that dated courtroom; I worked hard to avoid eye-contact and I assume you did the same. I held my breath as I slipped past your chair on my way to the stand, trying to protect my insides (yes, perhaps in vain) from the air you exhaled.
When I gave my statement, when I answered your lawyer’s relentless questions, I tried to pretend you weren’t there, five seats away, brooding and breathing.
I looked to my parents and wondered how they did it—how they showed such strength in that room with you, sitting mere feet from the man who had defiled their only daughter, their baby girl.
But that was the last time you saw me, at least to my knowledge. There haven’t been opportunities for us to work through the scars you left me; and I’d have run like hell had you ever proposed the idea. My guess is that you’ve preserved an image of who the teenaged-me was; a static entity—a girl never-aging, just the girl who turned you in.
I have grown and changed in spite of that day.
Twelve years have passed. Twelve entire years since the version of me I had been crafting was derailed. Though still in its rough form, I had a sense for the girl I was, the girl I’d like to be; but I was made to relinquish her. I was made to start with new materials, new shapes, new colors—most not as soft, or as pleasant, or as bright as the old.
That’s the first lesson I have for you, the first lesson on being human: we are a culmination of all the past events that we have experienced. Some we cultivate with intention. Some we strive for. Others… well, others happen like you happened—alone, in the dark, when we’re least prepared for something to go tragically wrong. So to be human in this world, you must understand that.
We aren’t permitted to choose the good memories alone to shape who we are—we must absorb the pain as readily as the joy and allow the course of who we thought we were change ever so slightly.
So, I have been changed. Forever so. And some days I’m alright with that fact, but most days I try to dress that fact up in elaborate costume. Most days I masquerade as a woman who can walk and move and flow. I float through my life with an inflated opinion of how gracefully I have survived you. An euphemistic existence.
That moment lasted mere minutes, but it still lives with me. I remember the pull of my cigarette in that nearly-pitch black room. I remember the sweatshirt I wore and the unease I felt the moment you let the door close softly behind you.
I remember the feeling of you, long before you reached out to touch me—your intentions thickened the room, it hurt to breathe.
But I was a young girl then. I worried about authority and the impressions I left on others. I had trouble disappointing. But you knew that, I think. That’s why I was selected.
When you joined me that day, I shushed the heart that began to implore—I shouldn’t have done that, and I hope she has forgiven me.
If I may: when your heart whispers, quiet yourself and listen. And if you find yourself in the company of a heart who begs of you, you trust her. No matter what you think the cost will be, to ignore her will be a cost far-greater.
You corned me in darkroom—a designated space where a person can develop permanent marks on paper. A photographic scar.
But I was busy picture-taking. Unforeseen images seared into mental film.
You advanced, speaking things—so many things—you offered as flattery. Picture. You inched close enough to upset my pleading heart further. She begged me to move. Do something. Another picture. Your greying breath reached my ear as the words turned to whispers. Picture. You brought lips to mine. Picture. Lips to neck. Picture. To ear. Picture. A stagnant gaze. Picture. Blurred periphery. Wall. Smoke unfurling. Picture. Picture. Picture. Hands to neck. Hands to breast. Picture. Picture. Hands to waist.
And when I felt your hand move to that delicate, middle line, my heart bellowed, terrified—and I broke free.
Sometimes the bravest move is only inches from where you currently stand. Sometimes the smallest falter can offset great force, that’s part of the magic of being human. So my tiny step backward broke your flow, enough to fill the room with a sobering air.
You walked back to the door, slinking out as quietly as you had arrived. And just as my body had relaxed, your face reappeared in the doorway, speaking things again. Just as my heart had implored, there you were, asking me to consider “making an old guy happy.”
And that was that, except it wasn’t. There were depositions to be made, formal charges to be filed, tears to be shed, court dates to be extended.
Today, I am a grown woman. I’ve done work, real work, to rid myself of this pain, of you. I said all of the brave things out loud—things like “I forgive him” and “it wasn’t my fault”—but that moment still claws its way out of me, up my tender insides, penetrating the open air in wails and sobs.
Even after all these years.
Because that’s another thing about being human: those moments we push down, those moments we want to wish away, they don’t die. They hibernate for short spells, but they don’t perish down there in your belly. Instead, they wait till you’ve grown comfortable in your routine. You might forget for entire weeks that you’re broken, that things ever went wrong in this glittering life of yours.
But really, those moments will bleed into your everyday. Those moments will change your behavior in imperceivable ways and they will manifest as pain and problems that you just don’t understand. You’ll feel lost and scared and resentful without warning, a sinking that you can’t quite define. And when someone asks what’s wrong, you’ll say “I don’t know” and it will be truth that springs from your lips in that moment. You’ll question who you are and who you’re capable of becoming. You’ll question if you’re capable of becoming.
So on this human journey of yours, remember that suppression is not the same as expulsion. Ignorance does not replace management.
But because we’re human, we adapt as best we can; we ‘cope,’ we ‘deal,’ we ‘survive’—we do this because we don’t know what else to do. Because things like you happen to people like me—and when things like that happen, fearless living becomes a story you sell yourself amidst reckless distraction.
Twelve years have passed and I’m supposed to be free; I’m supposed to have coped with that day because I’ve grown up, no longer the child you cornered. I’m supposed to be free of you because I have a man now, a real man, who looks after me and honors this heart’s whispers. I’m supposed to be free of you because I’m a mother now—of remarkable little boys who know me for my strength and humor, my dependability and my resilience.
Resilience. Another lesson.
How to endure my senior year in high school when peers were still working out whether or not I was in-fact lying. It wasn’t yet clear if I invented a story about a popular, respected teacher putting his hands, his lips, his intentions against a paralyzed frame.
But all that chatter of where I’m ‘supposed to’ be, that’s another lesson on being human: ‘supposed to’ has no real place in this world. We can use the rational part of our mind to understand the why, but that doesn’t mean our heart has to accept it as truth. ‘Supposed to’ is relative, subjective—oftentimes cruel.
‘Supposed to’ stunts progress, it inhibits our ability to heal.
‘Supposed to’ is a fiction.
Because you were supposed to know better that day. You were supposed to use your authority to shape minds in beautiful ways, not compress them in on themselves. You were supposed to honor the commitment you made to your wife. You were supposed to think of someone other than yourself.
But none of that happened, because ‘supposed to’ isn’t real.
In spite of everything, I convinced myself that I had forgiven, because I had read all the self-help books that told me this was the way to freedom.
You see, by forgiving you, I had forgiven myself. Proclaiming to the world “I have moved on” meant I had permission to heal, to release the red-hot coal.
But, this lesson is important: interacting with other humans changes them long after you part ways. So while you, no doubt, had to deal with your own hardships as a result of this experience, I do not believe you had even the smallest inkling of how far into my future you were actually touching.
I doubt you knew that grown-up me would still be manipulated, still be groped by those hands of yours.
And so, being human, I’ve learned, means doing dirty work for the sake of coming clean. To purge myself of you, I must face and feel you again and again and again. I must accept that you are a part of me—even if I hate that this is so. To honor myself, I must honor the part of you that survives—this is what it means to be human. No one said it would be fair.
You made a decision that would forever bind us, and I didn’t ask for that. I didn’t ask for you to stay with me all these years. And because I’m human, I still fight against the ugliness; I struggle to find the language that will free me. I still struggle with the guilt of hating you.
That day in the courtroom, when I had given my testimony, describing every awful detail of the encounter, I was asked how I felt after you had finally left me in that room.
I answered with a single word: gross.
But I don’t think that was true. I think I searched for what someone who had just gone through what I had gone through should feel. And what should I have felt? Fear. Anger. Resentment. Disgust.
But I felt nothing. An empty vessel with a grieving heart.
You took nearly a year to plead guilty, but you did it—the only gift you had left to give me, if that matters at all.
That plea mattered to me, so I thank you.
I needed that plea to reassure me that there was an actual person in there. The one that I trusted—regardless of how that good faith was made to collapse.
Years later, when I was finally willing to face the newspaper articles written, I found a summary of your sentencing. I read that you spoke before the judge, revealing that you “deeply and profoundly” regretted your actions.
And I hope that’s true.
I hope to walk through my life believing those words someday; because I know deep-down that we’re all facing battles, our stories are all complicated and messy—that’s what it means to be human. And we’re all human, aren’t we, even monsters like you.