This week marks two years since some creepy guy scared me in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, a life-changing experience. It's hard not to feel like it's that November again, being afraid to go out after dark, especially now that it's dark at five o'clock. I have to remind myself that this is a different November.
I've learned a lot since then about how to better deal with such incidents, which I hope can be helpful to our broader community.
I am blessed in that I was not assaulted in the park, just scared by a guy who followed me around and chased me while jerking off. I basically treated him like a bear, grabbed a big stick and waved it around, shouting at him (I appreciate that "misogynistic son of a bitch" is what falls out of my mouth in such moments, apparently), just went all Teddy Roosevelt in the Adirondacks on him, only I didn't walk softly, I ran as fast as I could.
Sometimes I find myself coming back and back to a story, as with this one. I'm happy to honor my heart and tell the damn story again, but there is a certain compulsion to it that makes me suspicious, like sneaking a cigarette on the fire escape, that makes me slow down and interrogate the urge to tell.
The funny thing about the story is that I'm proud of myself. To me it's a hero story. I didn't think to be scared, I went straight to Hothead Paisan mode. Got the guy off-guard, got away - and with bad sciatica, too (though I didn't yet know its name), so I ran away from him with pain and pins and needles shooting down my leg.
But when I tried to reach out to my community, I came up against so much discomfort and shame and awkwardness, and ended up feeling very isolated. I sometimes think I am still telling the story because I am waiting for the gold star - the good grade, the congratulation cards to put on the mantle. I know that survival is the gold star, the congratulation cards, etc., but I want the external reward. I just do.
I wish I had known at the time to reach out much more specifically and directly. Queer women in particular suffer from tough-dyke-itis, "F--- you, I don't need any help!" My ambivalence about needing help made me terrible at asking for it. So I tried to reach out to the community as a whole, or expected people to spread the word, when really it was my responsibility.
That's one of the things I've learned in the interim that may be helpful to others. Here is some advice, in case (God forbid) anything like this happens to someone you care about, or even just an admired acquaintance.
First of all, just show up. People later said that they didn't say or do anything because they didn't know the "right" thing to say or do. But why not just ask? "Is there anything I can do?" Perhaps you fear being entangled in someone else's needs. But remember, you can say no. Or, like the survivor, you can also be direct and specific, making an offer that feels doable to you.
Also, just your presence can be a huge help. People underestimate the power -- the great gift -- of just showing up, checking in, being a witness. You don't have to solve it, fix it, or even brainstorm about it. Just be in the moment with the person, where they are.
Try not to make your showing up contingent on some sweet spot of need. Ironically, I had one friend disappear after the incident because he said I seemed "too upset" in response to it, while another said I seemed "so amazingly strong" that she didn't need to be around. There's no magic window, no sweet spot; these are just judgments. Just show up.
Don't insist on hearing the story. What's important is not the details of what happened, but how it affected your friend. If you do get to hear the story, don't judge it. Don't dictate what your friend "should" have done, or should do now to heal. I remember one person told me I ought to take self-defense classes; considering I defended myself ably, this essentially erased the entire incident.
Also, a handy reminder: Sexual attack is not sexual attention. When I tried to talk about this incident with an older family member, mentioning that I was recently harassed, she said mockingly, "Oh, stop bragging! 'I'm young and these men won't leave me alone!'" Although it is funny to make this conflation into a joke: "I literally have to fend off men with a stick!" (Added bonus: Seeing the word "literally" used correctly for a change.)
People often framed the situation in terms of "support" - "I'm sorry you didn't get the support you needed." But the lack of response was difficult not because I didn't get "support" - I took care of myself just fine, thank you - but because it brought home to me how disconnected I had become, that I could be overwhelmed by danger and it simply wouldn't affect anyone else. How I longed to hear someone say "I'm so glad you're okay!" with relief not just for my sake, but for theirs.
Connection is the antidote to fear. In the two years since the incident, I've worked at building and healing relationships. This weekend I went to a lovely double birthday party full of sweet radical faeries. As I said my goodbyes, my friend Jesse asked if I was okay to get home, if I wanted him to call a car service. "I don't want you to be scared," he said. "You've had enough of that." Just hearing those words made me feel safer the whole way home.