Three weeks before Christine Blasey Ford told the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault in 1982, I found myself sitting across from a baby-faced deputy sheriff, reporting my 14-year-old rape.
The domestic violence and sexual assault center was down a short flight of stairs from street level, and to get to a room in back I’d walked through a waiting area filled with toys and a rack of used clothing, as if it were part pediatrician’s office and part thrift store. It was cool underground. I remember watching the clock and staring at a legal pad while waiting for the deputy to arrive as a sexual assault advocate said things to me that I could barely hear. On the pad I’d written down a list of basic facts about my rapist: name, age, possible phone number and address.
The deputy who met with me had a buzzed haircut and tattoos on both arms. He took notes slowly, turning back and forth between me and the desk where he was writing. He didn’t mean to turn his back to me, he explained. He usually did reports at the station. When he asked for my address, I struggled to spell my street name. Perhaps I should have written down my own basic information as well.
He didn’t know what I’d been through, the deputy told me, but he could empathize. He’d had to work through traumas of his own.
Our September meeting was the culmination of a monthslong deliberation in which I asked myself something akin to the question Ford said she’d asked herself: “Why suffer through the annihilation if it’s not going to matter?” My case isn’t a media spectacle. My rapist is not up for the country’s highest court. But watching Ford testify about a long-ago trauma before the Senate Judiciary Committee, I felt I understood something of the terrible calculation she was forced to make. When she spoke of annihilation, she meant something deeper than just reputational harm. She was talking about losing control of her own story, which is to say herself.
“When I say I’m going to try to do everything I can,” the deputy told me, speaking gently, “I hope you know that I actually mean that.” I had geared myself up for confrontation or skepticism. This was not the reaction I was expecting from a man in authority. When he’d finished the report, he handed it to me to read over. It was my rape story, told in someone else’s handwriting.
“I’m here, not because I want to be,” Ford was saying, her voice breaking. “I’m terrified.” I’d barricaded myself in a conference room to watch the hearing and I could hear the newsroom’s overhead televisions blaring outside the door, turned up loud for the hearing. My shoulders were tense. Ford’s hair was in her face and she sounded young, younger than I’d expected. I was also terrified.
When President Donald Trump recently questioned Ford’s credibility, tweeting that “if the attack on Dr. Ford was as bad as she says,” she or her parents would have reported it to law enforcement in the 1980s, I felt as if he had impugned me too, even as I knew my story is a most common story, a true American story. Most women don’t report. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 23 percent of rapes and sexual assaults get reported to the police. After Trump’s tweet, a barrage of women spilled their traumas online, sharing their stories about why they didn’t report their sexual assaults using the hashtag, #WhyIDidntReport. I didn’t post anything, but up until a month ago, that was me.
For years, I barely spoke about the incident, even as it played a role in my relationships and friendships with men. I told a few trusted boyfriends, friends and a therapist. But even if I didn’t talk about it regularly, it was a formational aspect of my life. It changed how I interacted with men, and put me on guard with male acquaintances and co-workers.
The details of my story are not extraordinary. Like Ford, I was at a high school party. I was 17. I had never had sex before being raped.
All the while I worked hard to forget. I remember once talking with a boyfriend about “60 Minutes” reporter Lara Logan, who had been sexually assaulted in 2011 while reporting on the Arab Spring uprising. “I can’t imagine being raped,” I said. My boyfriend looked at me. “You can’t? I thought you were.” So complete was my forced forgetting that I needed someone else to remind me.
At points during my 20s, guilt over never having reported my assault would resurface. At 17, I had wanted to protect my yet-unformed identity. I focused on what was right in front of me. I wanted the assault removed from my memory and unraveled from who I was. I wanted it to disappear. As I got older, my concerns enlarged beyond the personal. I also wondered whether the man who raped me had victimized other women. Did my silence make me complicit?
In August, I called my high school boyfriend, the one person I’d told about the assault when it happened. We hadn’t spoken in seven years, but he sounded exactly the same. “We talked about it once and that was it,” he said. “I felt like it wasn’t comfortable territory for me to bring up. I wasn’t sure how traumatized you were.”
Like many rape victims, who turn inward after an assault, I didn’t seem distraught. “You weren’t visibly shaken,” he told me. “You seemed upset, but not as upset as I thought you should be.” Instead of anger, which would come years later, I was stoic.
It never even occurred to us to go to the police.
We’d do things differently now, we told each other. But a wish for accountability, for truth to prevail, is an adult impulse. A teenager’s first loyalty is to her own self-preservation.
“Apart from the assault itself, these past couple of weeks have been the hardest of my life,” Ford testified. “I have had to relive my trauma in front of the entire world, and have seen my life picked apart by people on television, in the media and in this body who have never met me or spoken with me.”
She’d been boxed into a terrible choice between what she felt was her duty as a citizen and her safety and reputation. “My responsibility,” she said, “is to tell the truth.”
Unlike Ford, I’d received no death threats or harassment, from the media or otherwise. Friends and family had been unwaveringly supportive. And yet, in a letter I recently wrote to a friend, I described the months leading up to my report as “some of the most emotionally taxing that I remember.” Looking back on my letter in light of Ford’s testimony, I realize that I, too, was trying to tell the truth, consequences be damned. “This is part of my larger effort this year to admit things that are hard and ugly, so that ultimately I can put them behind me,” I wrote.
In April, forgetting got harder. I gagged while brushing my teeth as my rape scene replayed in my head. I bought a new toothbrush, an electric one. Finally, I called my dad and told him I needed to come home. I’d waited 14 years, but I needed to know, suddenly and urgently, whether he’d believe me.
As dusk fell over the train, I sped along the Hudson River, watching the shadowy landscape shift from sprawling cityscape to the fields and smokestacks of the post-industrial towns upstate. When the train pulled into the rail station overlooking the river, I climbed into the front seat of my dad’s car.
I stared through the windshield and took my dad through the details of my assault.
“Did you ever want to get revenge?” my dad finally asked.
“No,” I said. “I wanted it to go away.”
“Do you think this guy raped other people?”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“I was afraid you’d murder him. That’s probably not true, but I believed it at the time.”
The next morning, I ran the Google search I’d been putting off for more than a decade. He came up immediately in the local police blotter. In the 14 years that had passed, he’d been arrested more than once, including for a violent felony. I picked up the phone and called a national domestic violence and sexual assault hotline.
Laws about rape reporting are state-specific and complicated, but I was pretty sure that my assailant could no longer face criminal charges because of how much time had passed. While 10 states have almost no time limit for filing charges for felony sexual assault, most states have limits on how long a victim has to report sexual assault or rape. In New York, where I live, there’s a five-year criminal statute of limitations for reporting sexual assault. For the most serious rape cases, there’s no statute of limitations, a law that was updated in 2006, looping in cases back to 2001 that were still inside the five-year window when the law changed.
“I know the statute of limitations has passed, but I want to report my rape from 14 years ago,” I explained. “I think the man who assaulted me has raped other people. I’d like to flag his file so my report comes up if he hurts someone else.”
“Well, that’s not quite how it works,” the woman on the other end of the line told me. “In order to put a note in his record, he’d have to be arrested.
“Still,” she continued. “The statute of limitations may not have passed if you’re still interested in reporting.”
I told her I was. I was sick of consciously forgetting things.
It’s impossible to know what Ford’s thought process was, what compelled her to finally go through with it. But in her July letter to Sen. Dianne Feinstein describing her assault, she mentioned an undercurrent of guilt. “It is upsetting to discuss sexual assault and its repercussions,” she wrote, “yet I felt guilty and compelled as a citizen about the idea of not saying anything.”
In Ford’s account, there is a tension between wanting to control the story of her trauma and what she felt was her responsibility to put it out into the world. This dilemma is the survivor’s burden, something I felt acutely. My own reasons for coming forward this year, after 14 years, were complicated. It wasn’t that I wanted my abuser to face criminal consequences ― I was under the impression that the statute of limitations had expired. But silence was no longer palatable. For too long I had been the sole witness to a crime of which I’d also been a victim. I was rebelling against the way I’d been dealing with it, by ignoring it out of existence. And I worried that the man who abused me as a teenager might still be harming other women. I didn’t have any evidence of other incidents, but I couldn’t stop myself from wondering anyway. What if I wasn’t the only one? What if there were others? What if there were going to be others?
In the days before I reported my rape to the police, my body revolted. It was still summer, but I developed a persistent sore throat. When I opened my eyes each morning, darkness rushed in and I struggled to get out of bed. A counselor from the sexual assault organization coached me through the process, told me to think about what I wanted to say before I said it, told me not to rush, warned me that the cop might not be sympathetic or might ask what seemed like insensitive questions. She wanted to know what I hoped to get out of reporting the rape, to make sure I wasn’t hanging all my hopes on a certain outcome.
It was a cool, cloudless September morning when I drove from my parents’ house to the sexual assault organization’s office, where I was scheduled to give my report to a law enforcement officer in the presence of a counselor from the center. Shadows played across the street.
I’m 31, but I don’t sound that way in an audio recording I made during the drive. “I’m reliving this thing from when I was 17,” I say, my voice nearly overtaken by the roar of the truck’s engine.
“There’s this aspect of it that doesn’t feel like an adult thing to do,” I continue. “Which is ridiculous, because as a child I didn’t feel like I could do this. I didn’t feel like I knew it was an option. It never occurred to me. The thought never crossed my mind.”
And then: “I wish I brought my mom with me.”
I was back in New York, the day after making my report, when a number with my hometown’s area code popped up on my phone. The man on the other end of the line was introducing himself.
“I’m the investigator who’s been assigned your case,” he said.
I pressed my ear to the phone, listening for the words I’d been expecting to hear: that it was too late, that the statute of limitations had expired, that he was very sorry but there was nothing further he could do.
Instead, the investigator asked to meet me in person. “I want to put a face to a name,” he said. He wanted an exact address of the assault and the names of anyone who could corroborate my account. He inquired if he could reach out to them the following week. I should get in touch first to let them know he would be calling. He was barreling forward while I felt myself pulling away, stunned.
My mind stalled. Hadn’t the statute of limitations passed? I pressed him. There’s no statute for first-degree rape cases, he insisted. I pushed back, walking him through the details I’d provided in my written statement to the deputy. “Are you saying this is more like a rape three?” he countered.
Unlike a first-degree rape, a categorization which includes the use of force, a third-degree rape would be a lesser charge and would fall outside of the statute of limitations.
I told him I didn’t know. I’d read the statutes extensively, but perhaps I didn’t understand the spirit of them.
Now that the wheels of bureaucracy were turning, I panicked. Telling my parents had made the rape real. Reporting to law enforcement made it official. Getting the call from an investigator made me question everything. I worried frantically about what form justice could take so long after the fact. I had wanted the assault to stop being my sole responsibility, but now that it was in the hands of the law, I wanted it back.
How much say did I have in the next steps? I asked. I wanted the power of giving the go-ahead before the investigation moved forward, before the investigator contacted my assaulter.
“It’s mine now,” the investigator told me.
After Ford gave her testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democratic senators praised her, calling her in turns brave, courageous and heroic. Women held signs and wore T-shirts with “I believe Dr. Ford” emblazoned on them. They were lionizing Ford, but they were also laying claim to her story, for themselves and for history.
“There is no right thing,” the sexual assault advocate had assured me. “We just have to move along with the decisions we make and take what comes.”
It’s mine now, he said. His tone was gentle, but this was terrifying to hear, at once a liberation and an annihilation. I thought about this during Ford’s testimony. She saw her disclosure in terms of her obligations as a citizen, that the story of her assault could no longer be hers alone. She was describing a transfiguration, the singular becoming the plural, the personal becoming the public. She was giving us the story of her hard and ugly things, ceding control of it, entrusting us to shepherd it into the light.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.