We’ve heard about how Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on Thursday was triggering for millions of women. I am one of them.
I was attacked in a parking garage in Jerusalem when I was 23. It shattered my sense of safety, my then-idealistic image of life in the Jewish state, and for a time, my view of men. But given that a friend had been raped earlier that summer in the same city, I told myself that I should just get over it and consider myself lucky. I was jumped from behind by a stranger who tried to drag me into a corner and sexually assault me, but I was not raped or otherwise violated. I thrashed violently and somehow got out of his grip. I ran screaming from the garage, causing a middle-aged resident to look out the window from his apartment two stories above and see me. The he saw the man who attacked me, who quietly exited the garage next and tried to slink off in the other direction. That kind, older man — he was probably the age I am now — picked up the phone and called the police.
That was 25 years ago. Having dealt with it in therapy some years later — and having been hardened by years of working in warzones as a journalist — I didn’t think that one woman’s testimony could drive me to tears. And I certainly didn’t think it would put me back in that garage.
I think that’s because there’s one key point of my attack that is similar to Ford’s. And that’s that the attacker clamped his hand over my mouth to keep me from screaming. Or really, slammed it over my mouth, hard enough to cut my lip.
I had been studying at the Hebrew University that summer to brush up on my Hebrew after finishing a master’s in journalism at Columbia University. With ulpan ending, I had to get out of the dorms on Mt. Scopus and find a place to live. The morning I was attacked, I was walking around Baka at 9 a.m., going to see an apartment for rent. The night before, the person on the phone gave me directors to the Dan Complex, and it included something about passing or even going through a parking garage to get to the entrance.
That morning, struggling to find the address, I asked a young man on the street for directions. He looked to be about my age and was wearing a kippah. His directions sounded about right, including that parking garage, so I thanked him and started walking.
Five steps in, something didn’t feel right so I moved to turn around. But it was too late.
I felt the bang to my lips before I realized what had happened. His hand smashed my lips to my teeth and clamped down tightly. His other arm was around me, trying to drag me further into the garage. I didn’t realize immediately that it was him, the guy I’d asked for directions a minute earlier, because he had come from behind and I couldn’t see him. I thrashed wildly, and with one hand so busy trying to silence me, he only had one arm fully at work on keeping me in place. I writhed out of his grip, and I started to run. He caught my beloved messenger bag flapping behind me, the one I’d carried all year in New York as I worked on figuring out what it meant to be a reporter. I let it fall to the ground so I could keep running.
Afterwards, it haunted me that he didn’t just take the leather bag and run. He could have had my wallet, my money and other valuables. But apparently that’s not what he was after. I was.
The man who heard me screaming was a British immigrant to Israel. “Are you alright?” He called down. I clearly wasn’t. “Did he attack you?” he asked when he saw the young man leave the garage/ “I know who he is,” he said. “Come sit outside my house and we’ll call the police.”
I waited for the police to come. The kind man went back to the garage to retrieve my bag. I was glad because I had nothing to do but tremble in shock and wait. But now, with the journal in my bag, I could write. I still have that journal. In it, I sound not just traumatized, but angry. It was outrageous that someone wearing a yarmulke, something that was supposed to represent being a morally upright, God-fearing Jew, could attack me. The kind man noticed that I wasn’t even “dressed inappropriately or anything like that” which might have warranted my getting attacked, because you know, that’s how the world was in 1993 — and maybe still is a quarter of a century later.
The police came. The kind man told the police exactly what he saw, and where the family shop was — just at the end of the road. They interviewed me and took down everything I said. Then I had to try to go on with my life. Here’s what I wrote the night of Aug. 22, 1993:
“I’m so frightened. I feel like a kid again, when I was afraid that a monster or that girl-devil from ‘The Exorcist’ might jump out at me at any time from behind any door. Except this time it’s the guy, who has come back to get me. Totally irrational. This guy has no idea where I live. Except, that is, unless the police report somehow fell off the clipboard when they went to question the guy.”
When you’ve been attacked, you can start to become afraid of your own shadow. You lock every door, you keep looking over your shoulder hoping not to be surprised again, and your fears are not necessarily based on real dangers but on imagined ones. You become hypervigilant. You find it hard to relax. You replay things in your head on a loop, asking if you could have done something differently. You start to view everyone as suspect and think danger lurks in every corner — which is no way to live.
With some support from a good friend and an understanding editor, those feelings subsided. But they were replaced by anger a few weeks later when I was contacted by the Israeli Police.
“We know who did it,” the woman on the phone said. “But when we went to his house, his parents said the problem is just that he wasn’t taking his medicine. They said they’ll make sure he takes his medicine.”
How old is he? I asked. The answer: 21.
So he’s an adult, almost my age. Medicine or not, I said, I still want to press charges. I was willing to testify. I didn’t want him to be free to attack the next person without having a criminal record. Please, I told the policewoman, I want to press charges.
She almost laughed at me. “It doesn’t work like that here. His parents say he’ll take his medicine, so this is it. We’re closing the file.”
Would you believe me if I said that 15 years later, I found myself living in Baka, that he was still wandering the neighborhood, and that he tried to attack me again? By now, he seemed less agile and had the moonface and heaviness of someone on Lithium or other drugs. In the months leading up to this assault, I often saw his pacing the streets, and I came to realize that his family home was across the road from one of my best friends. One Shabbat afternoon, he ran up to me as I was about to enter the gate of her courtyard. Suddenly, his body was next to mine and he put his hands around my neck. His brother and my friend’s husband were there seconds later and pulled him back, as did my friends.
I couldn’t believe me either. Except that it really happened. We went inside and called the police. This time, I wasn’t accepting a “forgot to take his medication.” Although that’s exactly what the police tried to tell me once they identified who had attacked me.
His name was known to the police for many years. But because he was a person with a long psychiatric history, they wouldn’t give me information or tell me whether he had any criminal charges against him, or how many other women or girls he had attacked. They only acknowledged that there had been other incidents, and said they were not allowed to give out any further information. Israel, it seems, has its own version of HIPAA laws, and so his rights as a patient were much stronger than my rights as a victim.
But I wasn’t giving up there. I was 15 years older, more confident, and had better Hebrew. I tracked down his psychiatrist and went in to inform him that his patient had attacked me twice, and that I knew from the police that there were many complaints against him, though I didn’t know how many or how serious. The psychiatrist thanked me for the information, and explained that this man was in a constant cycle of hospitalizations and homestays. He came from a family large Moroccan-Jewish family who were dead-set against committing him long-term, though he occasionally attacked family members as well. And although his behavior sometimes led law enforcement commit him for short periods, he would eventually stabilize, convince a doctor that he was not a danger to himself or others, and be released.
Although I couldn’t force the Israeli authorities to press criminal charges against him, I was told, I could appear before a state psychiatric board reviewing his case to speak about the attacks. I wanted them to consider recommending long-term hospitalization. And so I got to speak — the closest I ever came to testifying to what happened to me.
My Ford moment in the sun brought little solace, though it was better than doing nothing. Like Ford, I got to make a statement to a board of white men who would decide what to do with the information. My attacker was recommended for another hospitalization. But within a month, he was hanging around the neighborhood again. He still is. People in Baka still know about him. My friend, still living in the house across the street, has sent her daughters to self-defense courses out of concern that he may strike again.
“At least you weren’t raped,” I always told myself. But listening to Ford’s testimony, I was reminded that these attacks took a toll on me. They left a scar long after the cut on my lip healed. I was lucky, after all. “Lucky” was what the policeman told writer Alice Sebold she was after she was raped — but not murdered — in college. She wrote about this in her powerful memoir, “Lucky.” We have been raised to think that being attacked at some point is the inevitable price of Living While Female. #MeToo is about saying that we will not accept that price anymore, whether it comes in the form of harassment or assault. We will not make excuses for men who are powerful and entitled and Ivy League-educated. We will not make excuses because people have a history of mental illness, broken homes, substance abuse problems or alcohol addictions.
We will peel back the hands that tried to silence us and scream. And then we will confidently speak our truth and tell our stories, until something changes.