A man was waiting for me behind a tree.
I didn’t know this, yet, as I unlocked my bike after watching a World Cup game on a big screen outdoors at Marstallhof with friends back in 2006. I had no idea what was coming as I rode along the Neckar River and followed the curve of the bike path over to Bergheimerstrasse. It was reaching 9 p.m. and it was June, so there was still some daylight refusing the hug of encroaching nighttime.
I remember that I rode fast, and even stood up on my pedals as I crossed over a bridge—like a child—so that I could rise above my handlebars and face the wind head-on. I looked to the left, over at the distant hills, and then below the bridge where the train tracks were. I saw fluorescent lights, the clean platform, a few ICE trains like long white bullets resting on the track.
There’s so many bike rides that I forget. Even now, I ride my bike home to and from work every day and often get so lost in thought that I barely remember the journey from point A to point B.
But, I’ll never forget this particular ride.
I was wearing a green skirt, coral tee-shirt and a pair of sandals with mixed pastel colors, like a Monet painting. This was the last time I’d ever wear this outfit. In another hour it was going to be confiscated as evidence and never returned because the police correctly assumed I’d never want to wear them again.
I went through the Weststadt and checked out the tall, gilded buildings, the ornate balconies, the quiet cobblestoned streets and private parks.
Then I reached the street where the man waited.
The street to my right was a four-lane highway, very busy, and it led over to the American army base. My bike path ran along it and to the left I passed Patton Barracks, which is another installation of the army base, a soccer pitch where I often saw kids playing games, and then came a shallow stretch of woods—so shallow that you could see the lights of a neighborhood (Kirchheim) behind it.
The man was behind a tree at a place where the bike path dipped in ever so slightly towards the woods. Just past his tree was a metal barricade (perhaps meant to slow bikers down so they wouldn’t careen in to people around the bend?)
I don’t know how long he waited there. I don’t know if this was a spur of the moment decision or if he’d scoped out the perfect spot long ago.
I just know that I slowed my bike almost to a stopping point so that I could navigate the metal barricade on the path and, when I did, he stepped out of his hiding spot.
What struck me was just how fast it was. How sudden. There was no one–and then there was someone–and he grabbed me under the armpits and pulled me off of my bicycle. The bike tumbled and my legs got caught up in it, but the man was fast and strong and determined and managed to separate me from it.
And so quickly.
I can tell you that in those next moments my most dominant emotion was surprise.
It took a few seconds for my mind to catch up to what had just happened (and was happening) to my body. It felt, in a weird way, like a joke—a bit of a wait, what’s happening here? I didn’t quite believe in it. It felt like a misunderstanding.
But then, as I felt his hand clamp down hard over my mouth, and as he roughly dragged me further in to that stretch of woods, I felt my mind flee my body. That’s how intense the onslaught of fear was.
It’s hard to explain. It’s a level of fear that I’ve experienced exactly one time in my life, but that I’ll never forget. It was a fear that blinded me, shut down those basic skills of thinking and sensing, and that just made me react.
I remember my body automatically fighting his will to drag me further towards the houses not so far behind them. Every muscle in my body stiffened, fought; my hands clawed at the grass and mud as he dragged me forward.
It’s hard to recall actual thoughts at this point in time—except for one. I clearly remember wanting my mother and father in a way that still brings tears to my eyes as I write this. They were the people that came to mind, even as that mind shut down with fear.
“Please, please!” I remember gasping, “Please don’t hurt me! Please!”
Somehow he lost control and dropped me on the ground, and I remember that I was facing upwards when he fell on top of me. I can still see the tops of trees, the dark sky.
In that split second we went from upright to laying on the ground, my voice acted entirely on its own and let out a scream that I can still hear and yet not recognize as my own voice. It was a scream that came entirely from its own place in fear.
At that moment he punched me in the face and then buried as much of his fist in to my mouth as would fit.
I remember pain and a strange sense of surprise similar to when he’d first stepped out from behind the tree. This was someone willing to cause genuine harm to me. I’d never experienced that, before. The fist in my mouth choked; my face stung. This was someone that might hurt me in a way that could be permanent. He might kill me. He would kill me.
He leaned in very close and said in German, “Be quiet. If you’re quiet I won’t hurt you.”
The two of us were quiet, then, and he looked over his shoulder towards the bike path—still lying on top of me—and waited. I wondered if another biker would come, if they would see our shadows hidden and leveled in the forest. I wondered if I would scream again.
After that moment—and here is the part that I’ve struggled with for ten years now—my memory is mostly blocked. I vaguely remember his hands touching me, and feeling like I was somehow levitating above myself. But, otherwise there is a whole section of time that’s lost. This time when he was on top of me, my body crushed in to the earth.
I do remember thinking at one point, “If I’m quiet, this will all be over soon.”
Terror paralyzed me. I literally shut down and that part of my brain has never reopened since. When I think back to the sequence of events it skips forward at this point, like something that’s been censored out of movies shown on prime time TV.
When my lucidity returned, I was still laying on the ground—but the man was a shadow two or three feet away. He sat there on the ground, facing me, looking down.
I pulled myself up on shaky legs and stumbled over to my bicycle.
I remember little sounds coming out of my throat—cries, moans, the sound of fear. I grabbed my bicycle and somehow found the strength to mount it, and the whole time I watched him, expecting to be stopped.
Without knowing how, or without a thought of where to go, I was riding again—the wheels, I remember, shook back and forth in tandem to the tremors of my body.
I felt blind and paralyzed, yet my other senses took over and moved me forward. I rode and even then I was already crying, releasing emotion. My teeth chattered; I could hardly see.
I rode without knowing where I was going. I must have looked horrific—sobbing and bleeding over my bicycle, cut up from the brush and rough hands and heavy body above me.
Somehow, amazingly, my bike made its way to my friend Kellie’s house. I remember opening her gate and thinking I just need to get to her door and I did that and rang the bell. She opened and saw me standing there.
I said, “A man just tried to rape me, but I bit his cheek and got away.”
This sentence has also haunted me for a decade.
Kellie was the go-to friend, the one I was so incredibly lucky to be with when this all happened. There’s no one who could have handled it better, who would have done more for me. She took care of me for the next three weeks before I left for the States. She was my savior, and I’ll always be grateful to her.
After I told her what happened, she led me to her car and then we were driving and when I asked where we were going, she said “The army hospital.”
“Why?” I asked. It’s strange to think—but in that moment I couldn’t fathom why we needed to be anywhere but the safety of her house.
At the entrance they put me in a wheel chair and wheeled me in to some room where all I remember are paintings—very dull paintings aimed to keep the environment at a neutral charge.
While I sat there staring blankly at the paintings and crying, Kellie went to the reception desk and recounted what details I’d given her of my attack.
I overheard her say, “Yes, she bit him in the cheek and he let go of her and she got away.”
When I heard that, I remember looking towards the reception desk with the very dim but not fully realized thought, “What? Did I say that? Did that happen?”
To this day, I have no recollection, whatsoever, of biting this man in his cheek. And yet—that’s what I told Kellie, and I’m not a liar. But, I don’t know, and I’ve spent ten years trying to fill in those broken spaces in my memory, but I don’t know if it really happened.
In all honesty, I’m inclined to say it didn’t.
The evening is a blur of events from there.
I was wheeled to an examination room and my doctor had a blue Mohawk.
From what I recall, he asked me questions and checked out my battered face and legs. My clothes and shoes were taken away and I never saw them again.
Something that really confuses me is that I don’t believe I was given the type of examination that someone who might possibly have been raped is given. Very little attention was given to the vaginal area.
I’m inclined to believe it was because of what I’d said about biting the man. The immediate take on things was that I was strong, the hero of my own body, someone who had taken control and outmaneuvered (and better yet injured) her attacker.
Despite my gapped memory, I answered a barrage of questions from the doctor, the German police, and two members of the American military police who came in as well.
They offered me a social worker who I immediately disliked and refused to talk to so they finally asked her to leave.
Over and over they wanted to know things that I couldn’t remember.
How tall was he? Ethnicity? Was he German, for sure, or was he a non-native German speaker? What was he wearing?
I was shocked to realize that—despite the fact he’d smothered my body with his own—I could not remember anything more than the fact that he’d spoken German (though I wasn’t convinced it was his native language) and had dark hair.
Over and over I said, “I’m not sure. I’m not sure.”
“You’re doing great,” the police assured me. “Honestly, you remember more than most people do.”
I found that strange. I remembered frustratingly little, and yet they all assured me that this type of fear often erases even the two or three things I’d come away with.
And, of course, they wanted to know all about the bite on the cheek.
I obediently recalled what I’d told Kellie out loud several times; namely, that I’d bitten the man’s cheek. I couldn’t recall which cheek, or if I’d drawn blood, or if he had an identifying mark, or even if I’d actually done this thing.
They all kept telling me how proud they were of me. How well I’d done. How much easier it would be to identify my attacker because he probably had a mark.
The Military Police were both southern gentleman, and obviously wound up about my situation. “Don’t you worry, ma’am. We’re going to find this man.”
Later, in scrubs, I was driven to the German Polizei station and the female officer working with me gave me a cigarette. I was questioned extensively, my answers remained vague or empty, and then they drove me in a police car back to the place where I was attacked. The police officer kept her arm around me, translating my shivers as cold, and asked me to point out the metal barrier, the tree he’d hid behind, the indented earth where my body sank.
Eventually I was able to go back to Kellie’s house, where I slept in my scrubs.
The next day I was taken to the police station and asked to go through a notebook of photographs and put a post-it note on anyone—no matter how many—who struck me as a possibility.
I remember that one of the first pictures I saw was of a blonde man dressed entirely in denim. Even though I’d told the officers that my attacker had dark hair, I felt a sudden rush of that unfamiliar terror, the type I’ve only ever experienced once.
I stuck a post-it note inside.
But then a few pictures later I felt the same terror. And then again. And again. And again. And eventually I’d laid down so many post-it notes that the whole exercise felt futile, even though I was assured it was “very helpful.”
Violent crime in Heidelberg, Germany is rare enough that a newspaper article was written about it, and the headline was, “Attacker Flees After Bite to Neck.” I still have it, and I still have the scrubs.
I spent the next days hiding out at Kellie’s house—though I did venture to my beloved Tae Bo class. When I entered the gym, still bruised and puffy-lipped, my teacher (who used to be a street fighter in Frankfurt, mind you) said, “He’s lucky I was not with you when this happened. He would no longer be living now.” I did not doubt her.
So here I am, ten years later.
I think I’ve always known I was going to write about this. When the whole Brock Turner thing happened, I was this close —but couldn’t muster up the courage. Mostly I was afraid of people (namely my students or my grandmother) reading about something so personal and disturbing.
In light of the current presidential election, sexual assault has been a topic of conversation. Female friends and I have suddenly been talking about it, all these moments when our bodies were grabbed. There’s a new openness that politics, with all its related fury and polarization, has encouraged.
Sad to say, this is the worst—but not only—incident I can recall of being touched inappropriately by someone who had no business doing so. There have been others.
Like most people, I’ve seen all kinds of memes and heated debate on Facebook in recent months. But what I’ve found most alarming within all the talk, and for me the reason I’m ultimately putting my experience out there, is that I’m convinced there are people who do not even know what sexual assault IS.
I’ve seen Trump’s ‘pussy grabbing’ comments compared to Fifty Shades of Grey, Kim Kardashian’s sex tape, pornographic song lyrics, Beyonce’s stage outfits and, amazingly enough, the Bachelor franchise. Even if these things are lecherous or overly sexualized or disrespectful of marriage…they were or they describe consensual acts.
There is a difference.
So, I’m sharing my story in part to help add to the definition of sexual assault that women are building with their openness about what they’ve been through.
We need to at least be able to define it if we’re ever going to resolve it.
There are so many directions I could go with this story.
I could talk about what these experiences do to you—the panic attacks I had shortly thereafter, the way I still pointedly ignore smiles from men I don’t know when I pass them on the street.
Or I could write a whole post about questions I was asked after it happened; what time was it? Did you have anything to drink? Were you alone? What were you wearing?
I’d definitely say a word or two about how there’s never a witching hour where this is okay; there’s never complicity in a skirt.
I could write about the fact it bothers me that the only real education people get about sexual assault is always geared towards women, and focuses on how to avoid it. Women are encouraged to take self-defense classes, to carry pepper spray, to stay in well-lit places.
This is all good advice and worth following. But, when so many of us still don’t manage to avoid it, we’re asked pointed questions that suggest the blame lies with us.
I could write about how frustrating it has been to read all the deflection.
I’ve seen people respond to denouncements of Trump by writing, “Yes, but Bill Clinton said/did…” So, then, do two wrongs make a right? Can’t we agree that both men’s actions were disgusting?
These conversations serve as a form of education on this topic for everyone who reads them. Is this really the message we want to impart?
As a final note, I’ve never stopped thinking about that gap in my memory. Do I think I was raped? My honest thought is that I wasn’t. I would have experienced pain or soreness, afterwards, and my wounds were all limited to the face, arms, and legs.
But that doesn’t take away the fear that was introduced to my emotional responses. Whether it actually happened physically or not, I was violated. I know that other people have experienced a thousand times worse than what I did. I’ve read about it in the news, and it makes me sick. Though our experiences may vary, the bond of terror is singular.
And, do I think I bit my attacker? I’m not convinced of that, either.
So, if neither happened–why was he just sitting there across from me, and why did he let me leave on my bicycle? If I bit him, I can only assume he might have killed me. (Just look at what happened when I screamed.) Also, if he’d been able to drag me to his ultimate destination—what would have happened to me, then? I’ve thought about this more than I can say.
These will be mysteries unless my mind suddenly decides to fill in the blanks one day.
But, and I believe this, passionately–what should never be a mystery is the definition of sexual assault and what should never be defended or tolerated is its language or actions–no matter who your politician of choice is.