Ten years ago, I threatened to kill a man. I did not know his name or anything about him. And yet when I threatened to kill him, I meant it.
To this day I still wonder what would have happened if, by some fluke, the box cutter had made its way into my hand. I wonder if I would have pressed the cold blade against his throat, as he had done to me just moments prior. I wonder if I would have found it in me to stab him as he lay there on top of me, strangling me, bashing me, sexually assaulting me.
I still don’t know. What I do know is that by threatening to end his life, I saved my own. I know that if I hadn’t wrestled him for the box cutter, if I hadn’t screamed and kicked and thrashed about like a wounded animal, I might not have survived the night.
I do not say this to imply that women who have acted any differently in sexual assault situations have done the wrong thing. On the contrary, a different perpetrator might have killed me on the spot for fighting.
So my story is neither cautionary nor instructive. It’s just my story and there is no way to tell it without including certain details. I wasn’t technically raped that night. And boy, do people love to remind me of that.
I was 23 years old and an honours student at the University of Sydney. I’d woken up that morning and showered like I would have on any other day. The only thing that was different about this particular morning was that it was the day of my honours presentation – a day I had been working towards for several months. It should have ended in celebration and elation. Instead, it ended with me at a police station.
I’d gone out for some drinks after class had finished (yes, I was drinking, as women are permitted to do from time to time) and I was making the 20-minute walk home to my parents’ place in Sydney’s lower north shore. I was a few hundred metres from my front door when I was suddenly attacked from behind.
A solidly built man I had never seen before had seized me. He held a boxcutter blade to my throat and began dragging me into an adjacent park. I hadn’t seen or heard him coming as I was listening to music through earphones. (Later, I would be told that this was just one of the many reasons I was to blame for his decision to attack.)
He then said point-blank: “I am going to kill you.” He punched me in the face and the force of the blow was so powerful that it knocked me off my feet and onto my back.
I lay in the dirt, immobilised by fear, as he moved on top of me. They call this the “freeze response” and I have since learnt that most sexual assault victims experience this sort of shock and paralysis.
Then I felt the life being choked out of me. His hand was on my throat, my trachea was being crushed and I could taste blood in my mouth. I was also vaguely aware of a deep pain beginning to grow in my shoulders and back.
Hours later, at Gladesville police station, I’d be photographed and swabbed. I’d be asked to go into a small room and remove my top. Once in there, I would examine my body in the mirror and find what would soon become dark bruising across my back – bruising that was apparently caused while the weight of my attacker’s body ground my flesh into large, protruding tree roots.
It was very painful. It was embodied. It physically hurt. I didn’t ‘witness’ violence, I endured it.
During the assault, though, I didn’t process that sort of detail. All I could think was: How can this be happening to me? Is this for real?
Then my mind went somewhere else altogether. I shut my eyes tight and an old, forgotten memory played like a video before my eyes.
I’ve since been told that my brain was valiantly trying to protect me from the trauma of what was occurring to me. In transporting me to a safer time and place, it was trying to shield me from what was happening.
And yet, just as quickly as I’d slipped into that dissociative state, I slipped back out of it. And when I did, I found myself looking directly into my attacker’s face, only inches from my own. His grasp was still on my throat. I couldn’t breathe and couldn’t move. I felt a sharp pain across my body and I remember thinking: I don’t want to die. Not like this.
When it comes to sexual assault, women are forever being asked: “Why didn’t you say no?” or “Why didn’t you fight back?”
As though a rapist would ever listen. As though victims are the ones who should be responsible for preventing the violence we experience.
If you really want to know why most women don’t fight back, it’s because of one of two things: either we are immobilised by fear, or we assume that fighting back will make things worse. This is, after all, something that has been drummed in to us all from a very tender age.
But that night I did fight back. Not at first, and not because I am courageous. The reason I fought was because adrenalin took over and I had nothing to lose.
My mind had eventually caught up and computed that I was in a kill-or-be-killed situation. And if I was going to die anyway, why not fight the f—er? Get his DNA, if nothing else.
I’ll never forget the look of shock and surprise on his face when I said that. What I don’t remember is exactly what happened in the next few moments. Again, this is not uncommon. The nature of trauma means that survivors often have memory gaps or recollections that don’t add up.
One counsellor explained that if your memory is like a filing cabinet, a traumatic event will effectively toss all the files onto the floor, mess them around and then shove them back in. Some files are lost. Others get out of order. She also told me that she’s never once met a sexual assault survivor who had perfect, chronological recall.
Such is the nature of trauma.
And yet I’ve also been told that if I ever go to court, defence lawyers will almost certainly try to use my memory gaps against me. I can look forward to some smug lawyer arrogantly trying to discredit me by painting me as an “unreliable witness”.
The fact that I’m even classified as a “witness” frustrates me to tears. I wasn’t sitting outside my body, eating popcorn and watching this happen from the sidelines. It was very painful. It was embodied. It physically hurt. I didn’t “witness” violence, I endured it.
I’ve also been advised that, in addition to my memory gaps, the fact that I had been drinking that night will almost certainly be used against me. I’ll be painted as licentious. As slutty. As stupid. As a liar.
But to be very clear, my memory gaps are not evidence that I am lying. To the contrary, they are evidence of the traumatic nature of the violence I have experienced.
So here is what I do remember. I remember a sudden feeling of lightness on my chest and an awareness that there wasn’t a heavy body on me any more. I have no recollection of climbing to my feet but I do remember being in a standing position and noticing a small amount of blood on my hand. I remember wondering if it was my blood or his (this would later turn out to be a defensive wound). Then I remember picking up my bag and reaching for my mobile and dialling triple zero.
The week following my assault, I was sitting in my first-ever sexual assault counselling session.
“Now, pet, you know this wasn’t your fault, right?”
I bristled. Not my fault? Not my fault? Of course it’s not my bloody fault.
“Why would you assume I blame myself?” I asked the counsellor. “I don’t think it’s my fault. Do you think it’s my fault?”
“Absolutely not,” she quickly replied.
“It’s just that most people who walk through my door do blame themselves.”
“My issue is not going to be that I blame myself,” I said. “My problem is going to be anger management over what happened.”
I still wanted to kill the guy. My counsellor laughed sympathetically.
Over the coming months I’d return for weekly sessions at the sexual assault centre. From time to time I’d see other women sitting in the waiting room and I’d think to myself that they all looked so very normal.
I would study these women and try to guess how they felt. Shocked, alone, numb, ashamed, furious, despairing, powerless, exhausted… I wondered if they blamed themselves, like the counsellor had said, or if they felt angry, just like me.
And as I’d look at them, I’d wonder about the assailants: the men – because yes, they are mostly men – who produce a need for such services. I’d wonder how they could possibly justify their actions and choices to themselves. I’d wonder if they had any idea of the pain and anguish they were causing or whether they simply didn’t care.
And as I’d watch these women, it was all I could do not to cry tears of anger for them, for me, and for the sheer injustice of it all. Not all women will be raped or sexually assaulted. But one in five will. And the other four will live in dread of it happening to them.
The only way to fix this is to work to reduce sexual assault. Prevention – not silence – is what will eliminate the fear. Tackling sexual assault is a complex task. It requires that we address gender inequality, male entitlement, patriarchal attitudes, consent education, bystanders, and the judicial system.
It also means being willing to listen to the stories of survivors. As a community we must say again and again: We believe you. This is not your fault. You’re not alone. We’ve got your back
This is an edited extract from Unbreakable: Women Share Stories of Resilience and Hope, edited by Jane Caro (UQP).
If you or someone you know has been impacted by sexual assault, support is available at 1800 RESPECT (1800 737 732). Ask to speak to a trauma counsellor.