Twenty years ago I put a man in jail.
It wasn’t what I had set out to do that night; it started out as pretty typical night of bar hopping for a 21-year-old college student who had been raped at knifepoint six weeks before. I was determined to prove to the world and myself just how okay I was by picking up right where I left off; so when some old friends asked me if I wanted to go out, I went out.
I had never been to that bar before but my friends had; they recognized people and dispersed throughout the crowd. A boy started talking to me. I started talking back with an accent and told him I was a Spanish exchange student at Rutgers for the semester; he complimented me on my English. After a drink’s worth of maintaining my ruse, he asked me to dance. So we made our way out onto the dance floor and now it was my turn to recognize someone. A man that was so out of place in that college bar: a little too old, a little too rough. It was the second time in my life that I’d seen him; the first being when he broke into my off-campus apartment and repeatedly raped and threatened to kill me.
I announced, in perfect English, “I have to go call 911” and pushed my way to the pay phone.
Throngs of Police Officers answered my call but they weren’t able to find him. He had recognized me, too, and took off. An hour later they caught up to him. Two Officers held him while another shone a light in his face so he couldn’t see me as I was driven slowly past in a cruiser. I could see him, though, for the third time in my life, and confirm his identity.
I saw him one more time, months later at the sentencing. I wasn’t sure if I was going to want to make a statement or not, so I sat with my family in the crowded courtroom. The rapist stood in front of the room, handcuffed, and called me by my name. I remember my Mother crying, “how dare he,” and I remember ignoring her so that I could listen. The prosecutor looked to me next and I nodded. I would stand up to him, publicly, and speak my mind.
Since that day, I haven’t seen him face-to-face. I’ve written about him: in my blog, for Crisis Center newletters, to the Parole Board every few years. I’ve spoken about him: in performances with my social justice theatre troupe, at high schools, colleges, once to the entire Rutgers football team. You know how everyone told me that his face would be seared in my memory forever? Turns out it that wasn’t true and when I was able to see his current photo on the Department of Corrections website, I wasn’t sure that I’d have recognized him on the street.
I’ve known for a long time now when his sentence would max out. I knew which year he’d be released, then which season and then which month. But when a recorded phone call informed me of the exact date three weeks away, it hit me hard. For years I wondered what my reaction would be upon his release and every time I’d tell myself, “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.”
Suddenly that bridge became imminent, and it was immediately apparent that there was work that needed to be done. The mental work, which seemed so much more physically exhausting than when I was twenty-one. There was the reconciliation of my desire to be independent and accepting that it’d be okay to ask for help if I needed it. The practical work of figuring out if I need to do anything to protect myself and my family; he did have access to my name and then I had to go and not change it when I got married. I started writing, performing and shamelessly self-promoting and then the Internet happened! Finding me couldn’t be easier.
There was the dusting off of my old fears, the remembrance of my former coping mechanisms and the renaissance of one of my crazier ideas: maybe I should go see him before he’s released.
Should I? Could I? Why would I? I seemed to have this thought that if I could just see him face-to-face I would be able to ascertain what the odds are of him seeking revenge. That if only I could look into his eyes, I’d somehow instinctively know if he wanted to hurt me again.
I thought about it for a week and a day (and twenty years). Was I even allowed to have contact with him? Really, why would I want to? What was wrong with me? Would visiting someone in jail you might need a restraining order against a good idea? What could that conversation possibly look like? What if he was threatening, and I just showed him what I currently look like and provided him with my name again (I think it’s needed to visit and who knows, maybe he had forgotten it by now.)
But what if I regretted not going? Where was my magic 8 ball of adulting that gave me all the answers to the hard questions? I joined a Facebook group for survivors; maybe they’d have some insight. They suggested getting a big, mean dog and they shared inspirational memes.
It made me realize that just like in my first go ‘round of post-rape survival, I was going to draw the most strength and solace from the people that know ME intimately as opposed to the people that know my situation intimately.
My best friend from college, who was asleep in the other room the night of the break-in and later left there alone after I was taken to the hospital, was my fiercest advocate in those days when I needed one. Two decades later, she still was, giving me permission to feel scared but not weak.
My husband, who had been one of my closest friends at the time and still holds that title today, understood when I told him “I want you to drive around the block before you go out tonight to see if the creepy guy the neighbor said was walking around is still there” that I wanted him to do JUST that and absolutely not skip his plans for me. Without question, just steadfast understanding and support.
My children, who weren’t born when it happened, but I brought up on that day I spoke in court anyway. They were years away from existence but my ability to be strong for them was paramount. It still is.
There was so much more I said to the rapist that day, first out loud and then in the copy of my journal entries I had submitted as my statement and then gave permission to be given to him. Thinking of all those words, all that I’ve said to him already, I realized: I don’t need to talk to him again. I’ve said everything I need to say. He has nothing to offer me in my journey of finding my security and peace. My strength and supports are right here, surrounding me, just like they always were.