The Pussy Grab Chronicles

This post contains descriptions of sexual assault.

C.C. Chapman / Creative Commons

I had just graduated from UC Berkeley but still lingered around campus studying for the LSAT. I had long ago given up on the frat parties my roommate Kim and I flocked to as freshmen, drinking Everclear-based concoctions and breathing in the scent of Ralph Lauren Polo cologne. But in a fit of nostalgia, a flash of realization that we would soon depart that chapter of our lives known as college, Kim and I decided to check out a party promising to be populated by a handful of old Putnam Hall dorm-mates.

The second half of my college years had proven difficult. As a 19-year-old sophomore, I was assaulted at knifepoint at the threshold of my off-campus apartment. After a soul-chilling struggle, I managed to escape and call 911; police caught my assailant, and I identified him and he was arrested.

Though I survived, I found myself plunged into an incomprehensible reality. I became unhinged by the sound of footsteps slapping concrete. I was terrified of the dark. And yet I paid my rent and clung to a shaky identity by working as an aide to the campus police department, patrolling the dark streets of the sprawling campus and crime-ridden city, walking other women home to safety. My only protection was a uniform.

A year after the assault, I suffered through a scathing cross-examination at a trial where my assailant was ultimately acquitted and set free on a defense of misidentification. Every ounce of my confidence was stripped away. Inside my body something invisible quaked and raged. I fought, pushed it down, but inside the unbridged emptiness of my ambient fear pulsed deeper. The world turned tattered, frayed, worn, ugly. My place in it seemed tentative.

I couldn’t remember what I hoped for in coming to Berkeley. I recalled writing college admissions essays at my bedroom desk in my parents’ house, giving vague answers to open-ended questions about what I wanted to experience at college. I wrote that I wanted to experience everything. If I had been more thoughtful, if I had focused on the truth rather than pandering to some faceless admissions board, I wouldn’t have written this. In truth, we don’t want to experience everything. In truth there are some things we work very hard to avoid.  

I dressed for the party. I wore tight red pants and a matching sweater borrowed from Kim, and tied a red and black plaid scarf around my neck as a finishing touch. Before I left I took a long stare at the mirror, and for once I liked the looks of the young woman staring back at me. My ass looked great in my red pants. My hair looked good that night. My skin was so clear it almost shined. I slicked on a coat of crimson lipstick and raced out the door.

Kim and I entered the mobbed house and almost immediately were separated in the tight crowd. Music throbbed. David Byrne, Strange but not a Stranger! I grabbed a beer, searched the room for faces I might recognize. My body hummed with awareness, senses razor sharp—and, by some acoustical miracle, I heard the voice of a young man as I moved to glide past him. That voice was as plain and clear as it might be if we were standing alone together in an empty room, the volume of each syllable transmitted perfectly into my ears.

“Watch this,” he whispered to his friend. “I’m gonna grab this girl’s ass.”

In that moment, time did that thing it does sometimes, slowing down to impossibly slow frames. It was like I was watching a movie, a scene featuring some other woman. I understood, naturally, that the girl he spoke of was me; along with this perception I felt his hand slide along the seam in the fabric of my pants, down my ass and into my crotch, a hand pushing hard between my legs, grabbing with such force I felt my labia separate. And in this movie, in this scene of some other woman in red, without hesitation, without missing a beat, in one exquisitely fluid moment, she grabbed his arm, wrenching it behind his back the way she saw the real cops do so many times in her job. She twisted that arm so hard the face of this young man–or was he merely a boy?–crumpled. His friend looked on in appalled panic.

Her voice was low, calm. Powerful. “Don’t you ever fucking do that to a woman again.” She bent his arm even harder when he didn’t respond. “Understand?” He shook his head up and down. “Yes!” She made him say it again. “Yes!” And then she dropped his arm and kept walking, not bothering to look back.

That’s when I came back inside my own body, feeling a little stunned that the woman who coiled this asshole’s arm was me. And I smiled inside, not realizing yet that this would be an encounter I would cherish for the rest of my life; that sometimes a single moment in time can crystallize, take root, shape us into who and what we become.

Thirty some years later I still wonder: What happened inside me that night? What triggered that auditory marvel? How could I have possibly heard that voice? How could I have known, intuited? How could part of me I didn’t even know existed take command?

Maybe it was a vortex, a portal to a new reality where I learned I am not weaponless—that self-reliance is an art form, a necessary skill for existence among predators. Maybe the senses sharpen when we recognize the persistence of danger and degradation. Maybe I grew sick of shame, and in some seismic shift snapped out of the spell of victimhood. Maybe I learned that resistance is an imperative like no other. Maybe at some point fear percolates and hardens into defiance.

Calamity changes us. There was no turning back to become the person I might have been before the man outside my apartment showed me the knife in his hand. I learned the hard way that I can’t count on others to protect me or stand up for me. Only I can fight back.

Some days I still feel that man’s hand between my legs, still feel the sound of the footsteps of the man with the knife, still feel a trembling in my hands, more often than I would like to admit. But what I like to believe is that the little shit from that party never touched a woman like that ever again. And with the space of time, I am grateful for the moment he gave me—for unmasking my strength. For the cathartic proof that I could still decimate someone who violated me. For the lesson that I still possessed power, even when I still so often dragged myself through my days feeling like I held none at all.

Sometimes our ugliest moments make us stronger. Sometimes the worst incidents turn us into fighters. Some things are hidden inside us, buried so deep we don’t even know they are there until someone shows us. Some of these things are horror, loss or bewilderment. But some are resistance and rage, powers we might detonate before we even realize we’re doing it.

A woman who fights back is a terrifying thing. By confronting the anxieties facing us today we will begin to surprise ourselves—begin to learn the meaning of courage, the meaning of personal power, of how to find the strength to claw back at the hand that grabs us.

Karen Stefano is a JD/MBA with more than 20 years of complex litigation experience. She is the author of the how-to business writing guide Before Hitting Send and the short story collection The Secret Games of Words. Her next book, Vigilance, will be published in early 2019, chronicling her jagged road of survival and recovery from trauma after a sexual assault. Her work has appeared in California Lawyer, The South Carolina Review, Tampa Review, Santa Fe Literary Review, Epiphany and elsewhere.

ms. blog digest banner


Comments

  1. Mike Hoctor says:

    Wow, powerful writing, KT!

  2. Tony Press says:

    This is one special and powerful essay. I’m glad it is here for the benefit of all of us.

  3. Thank You for sharing. I’ve often hoped for the same second chance but then remind myself that it wouldn’t necessarily be positive

  4. Lorraine E Atkins says:

    Terrific essay. It is a good reason for women to learn self-defense techniques.

  5. Victoria Millard says:

    We need this story, Karen. Thank you. Enjoyed being in Michele Filgate’s online class with you! Best, Victoria

  6. Wow, powerful essay demonstrating resilience, reflection and action. No one has to remain a victim, but it takes strength. I agree that this would be a terrific, and much needed, discussion with all incoming freshmen.

Speak Your Mind

*

Error, no Ad ID set! Check your syntax!