My Soul is an Ocean

* Please note that this S.E.A. Change blog post includes a first-hand narrative of sexual assault, which may be triggering. A list of community resources is included below.


7:30 p.m., Nov. 5, Blackstone Boulevard, Boston, Massachusetts, twenty-six years ago. I walk the Boulevard past large, elegant homes. I don’t live here; I am in grad school. I walk and run here because it seems peaceful and safe. The street is divided by a grassy median where tall, ancient oaks grow and a footpath curves among them. By daylight I would run that path, but night falls early in November, so I stick to the sidewalk, under the streetlamps, close to the houses.

I am wearing a sweatshirt and sweatpants. Utility sweats, neither fashionable nor cute. My pace steady, my breathing even, I enjoy the solitude of early evening. Cold air washes over my face. It’s good to get out and move after hours at the books.

Ahead I see a figure walking toward me on the same sidewalk. Oh, good, I think, someone else is out walking. That increases my feeling of safety. The figure draws nearer, and I see it’s a young man, about my age.

He is about to pass me, and I give a polite nod, make brief eye contact. Suddenly he grabs my arm with one hand, and shoves his other hand between my legs. Groping, poking hard. I react viscerally. A noise between a scream and a growl rips from my throat; adrenaline-charged, I shove him sideways. The force of my shove throws us both off balance, we each stumble and sit down hard. He looks at me, his eyes filled with hate, gets up and runs down a dark side street.

I scramble to my feet and look around. I don’t see him anywhere. Did that just happen? I am filled with a sense of disbelief. But the places where his fingers jabbed hurt. So I know it happened.

I am alone in the night. What if he returns? I see a couple walking toward me in the distance. What if they are violent like him? I feel a sense of unreality. The things by which I used to navigate no longer apply. Blackstone Boulevard is no longer a nice neighborhood. Early evening is no longer OK for walks. Sidewalks lit by streetlights are no longer safer than the dark path among the oaks. Utility sweats are no deterrent. People in the distance are no longer a reassuring presence.

I run to the couple I saw, tell them what happened and request a ride back to the house I share with other grad students. The couple drives me to the grad house. I don’t remember what they said to me. I call the police when I reach home. They send a detective to the house. I describe the man who attacked me. I offer to draw a picture of his face. I remember people’s faces, and I am good at drawing. The detective declines my offer. Thanks me for my time, and says, “We probably won’t get very far with this. If he’s a repeat perp, we’ll need several witnesses. But if he strikes and runs, like tonight, it would be your word against his, and that won’t hold up in court.” I see the truth in the detective’s eyes. He’s being forthright about how things work.

In the weeks and months that follow, I feel at odds. Like I shouldn’t be upset by this because, after all, nothing happened, right? I mean, I fought back, threw him off, and got away unscathed. Right? I was lucky he had no weapons, right? No knife, no gun. I was lucky he ran away, right? I was lucky and I should be fine, right? Except that it’s not right.

That attacker stole my sense of safety. I no longer find solace walking, biking or running on my own. When I do go alone, I am hypervigilant, watching every person who comes within 20 feet of me for signs of impending assault. The peace and renewal of solitude are gone.

I am furious that he stole my sense of safety. Running had been a moving meditation. He destroyed that. Now I scan crowds on the sidewalks in downtown Boston, in the university district, in the Italian northside, on the steep west side. Looking for his face. I plan out how, if I see him, I will punch him in the face with the full fury of this breach. I will shove him to the ground with every ounce of strength I have. Kick him while he’s down, and yell, “How dare you!!” “I have a RIGHT to walk outside, SAME AS YOU!!” “My body is MINE, not yours to attack!!” while he lies crumpled on the ground. I don’t apologize for these thoughts.

That fantasy never comes to pass. During the rest of my time in Boston, I never see his face again.

Later I puzzle over what I could have done differently. Was it my fault somehow? I wasn’t drinking, didn’t do drugs, wasn’t dressed provocatively, didn’t flirt with strangers, and didn’t accept rides or overtures from men I did not know. I used my city smarts before and after be aware of your surroundings; walk strong and confident; lock your car doors; when you exit your car, get your keys out before you reach your building; lock your apartment door behind you; cross the street if you see a group of men catcalling; don’t wear shorts downtown; don’t wear flip-flops at night because you can’t run in them; don’t walk anywhere late at night by yourself; don’t run out of gas in the city at night.

Well-meaning friends say, “It’s good you fought him off.” “It’s good that nothing happened.” What they mean, though it remains unsaid, is they’re glad I didn’t get raped. So am I. So I keep feeling like I shouldn’t be upset.

Years later, with some trauma therapy, I put the incident to rest. But I remain hypervigilant when out alone, day or night. I practice city-smart behaviors. I take a self-defense course.

I wish I could say that incident was the only sexual assault I ever experienced. But over the years, petty assaults occurred, none of them injurious, all of them gross violations: A man on a New York City street teeming with people, in broad daylight, grabbed my breast, turned and disappeared into the crowd. In another city, an unidentified man left an obscene message on my answering machine. In yet another city, a man whom I had dated briefly stalked and threatened me in pornographic terms after I stopped seeing him. In Missoula, a taxi driver played with himself while driving me from the airport to my home after midnight. More recently a stranger plunked himself next to me on the bleachers at Caras Park while a band played, then suddenly groped me, claiming he saw a bee on my person. As quickly as he had arrived, he ran away. The crowds absorbed him before I could react. There were no bees present.

That makes six incidents of sexual assault in my lifetime. I am an ordinary woman. I do not stand out in a crowd. I did nothing to invite these assaults. What kind of society do we live in, when an ordinary woman can be attacked as many as six times in her adult life? None of these perpetrators were ever brought to justice.

Here’s the thing: A woman has a right to walk through this world unmolested. Every person has a right to safety from assault. That safety is a mark of our respect for each other as human beings.

And here’s the other thing: Those attacks do not define who I am. Do not think of me as “the woman who was sexually assaulted.” Who I am goes far, far beyond that. Those incidents are drops in the bucket. My soul is an ocean.



Resources for those in our community who have experienced a sexual assault:

First Step
UM Office of Equal Opportunity and Title IX
UM Student Advocacy Resource Center