Find Your Voice

In her book, When Women Were Birds, Terry Tempest Williams tells a story of nearly being murdered, but silencing herself from speaking out. It’s quite shocking, but so very plausible with the written and unwritten rules for well-mannered girls and the nagging belief that she brought it on by ignoring her intuition – victims often blame themselves. Her sense of guilt when realizing her silence could hurt another woman inspired me to share a story. A story where someone found their voice to report an act of violation, how she was supported when she did so, and how it may have helped other women…

That someone was me, 20 years old at American University in Washington, DC in 1995. I have woven our two stories to show the striking parallels although the threat of danger was much greater in hers than mine.

I had just done the most courageous thing yet in my young life – believed I was worthy of a top school, believed I could make it work all alone, and taken action to make it happen. I applied to transfer to American University to pursue a degree in international business and study foreign languages. To my surprise and delight, I was accepted as a transfer student for the Spring 1995 semester. So I packed my little Mitsubishi Galant full of everything I owned and drove for three days from Houston, Texas in the dead of winter to the overwhelming world of snow, politics, and glitter.

“I had seen him around. He was striking, thirty-something, tanned, blond and fit….Joseph wore me down. It was easier to say yes than to say no. I put my pen and papers down, put on my hiking boots, and followed him. How bad can this be? I thought. The fresh air will do me good.

I hadn’t been there but a few days when I went to a university play right across from my residence hall. At intermission, a charming young Latin man leaned over from the row behind me and introduced himself as Persi. He asked me where I lived and responded “Hughes Hall.” It’s a common thing to tell people in which hall you live, but later I wondered if that wasn’t my fault for disclosing too much.

Persi did a great job of convincing me that I should go clubbing afterwards as he and many of his Latin American friends would be at the Spy Club – a popular hangout for American U students. It didn’t take much convincing though. I was eager to make new friends, always had an affinity for Latin culture and the Spanish language, and dancing was my favorite activity to blow off steam from the stresses I was under as a young woman on her own without emotional or financial familial support.

I was excited to be going out for my first social interaction and put a lot of effort into looking especially nice. I took a cab to the club and wandered around. I saw Persi and was relieved to already recognize some of his friends from around campus. Despite my protests (I was not a big drinker and I was under age), Persi bought and handed me a drink. I drank at least half not to appear ungrateful. Persi asked me to dance, but grinded up against me in a way that I was not comfortable. I put up with it long enough to be polite but finally pulled away and said I was going to walk around. I decided I wasn’t really having fun and left without saying goodbye.

“I made a calculation that continuing to follow a man who was increasingly mad was a better risk than bolting at this point. I didn’t want to upset him. I can’t say it was good manners, exactly, that kept me deferring to him, when every decision I was making was sabotaging good judgement, but the effort to just keep walking seemed easier than trusting what I knew. I didn’t have the energy for conflict. I kept quiet. But I made a crucial error.”

When I got back to my residence hall, my Resident Assistant was still awake in our floor’s common area cooking a late night snack. I joined her to tell someone about the events of my evening. I was still pretty excited about going out for my first night on the town, but I neglected to tell her about my discomfort with Persi. To do so would have been admitting that I was wrong about his intentions and I also know how easy misunderstandings can be, especially with intercultural interaction.

I was shocked when Persi arrived on our all female floor and opened the door to the common area. Again, not wanting to seem impolite, I didn’t express that surprise out loud or ask him what he was doing there. Instead, a string of pleasantries were exchanged – oh hey, how’s it going, yeah I got tired and left, sorry I didn’t say goodbye, so I really am tired now, going to go to bed, have a nice night…

My RA watched as I left the common area and Persi followed me back to my room.

Finally my intuition was firing loud enough that I began to pay attention and feel justified with my sense of unease. I left my door wide open earlier and he walked in right behind me with no invitation. What was this guy doing? I felt had not given a single positive reinforcement to anything he had said or done but instead had repeatedly backed off each time. I told him, of course still politely, that he needed to leave because I was done for the evening.

“I turned around. Joseph was standing on a large square rock. The veins in his neck were protruding. The pupils in his eyes dilated black. In what seemed to be happening in slow motion, I saw him raise a double-edged ax, now reflecting light, directly over his head, with the force of his whole body about to bear down on his target. Our eyes met. The ax was meant for me. As he lunged forward, he slipped. I ran. For a mile and a half I never looked back.”

He insisted that he would indeed leave, but he really wanted a hug before he left. I wasn’t attracted to him at all and my stomach turned as I said “fine.” A hug is innocent, right? I shouldn’t be rude after he’d come all this way to find me, right? I didn’t want to alienate on of the first human beings with whom I’d made contact on campus, right? He held me tight, locked his embrace around me, and forced his lips onto mine. I was able to extricate myself from the unwelcome embrace and began to find my voice.

“Hey! Who do you think you are that you can come into my room late at night and assume I want to mess around with you! I’m not that kind of girl!” Truth is, I WAS that kind of girl, but only with someone that would have given an ACTUAL invitation to my room. However, it seemed like the only good defense at the time. Really, truly, I am a good girl, don’t violate me!

Persi backpedaled, apologized, and insisted he really just wanted a regular hug and would behave this time. What do I need to do to get this guy out of my room? OK, fine, fine. You are probably not shocked that he did it again. Negotiating clearly wasn’t working with this guy, so I wriggled out of his arms again, pushed him out the door as politely as I could, and locked it behind him.

“In my remaining days in the Sawtooths, I wanted to tell someone, anyone, what had happened. I wanted to speak. I wanted to say how scared I was, how I was almost murdered, hacked to pieces by a madman with an ax, and it wasn’t my fault, but I didn’t believe it. I believed it was my fault. I betrayed my instincts. My body tried to warn me. The owl tried to warn me. But I ignored them all and walked past my intuition. When one woman doesn’t speak, other women get hurt. And now Joseph could be hurting another woman asleep in another wilderness.”

I was incredibly unnerved by the incident. How did he get onto our floor and into my room? How far could it have gone in the worst case? What had I done to create the situation? What would I do if I saw him again? I felt like I should do something to quiet my mind and my stomach, but I realized nothing had really happened. He hadn’t raped me and had barely put his mouth on me, I had no bruises, he eventually left…but I still felt violated and gross. My dorm room, my brand new home, no longer felt safe.

The next morning I sought the counsel of my RA and told her all the details of the prior evening. She said she, too, thought it was weird that he showed up on our floor seemingly uninvited at that hour (normally residents are called by the front desk and have to physically come down to escort guests) but figured it was fine since I acted like I knew him. She validated my feelings of discomfort and encouraged me to report the incident to campus police. I protested saying nothing had really happened and I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it. Her reasoning was that he may have done things to other women or it might escalate the next time. Funny how I was not motivated to stand up for myself, but when I realized my inaction could harm other women, I found the courage to risk judgement by going to Campus Police.

“Next to the creek, at the base of the ravine, there was a small wickiup constructed out of willows. Inside were bloody deer skulls and amulets made out of bone. A small library of esoteric books on Mesoamerican cultures from Aztecs to Mayans were in orderly stacks, with sections on human sacrifice marked with pieces of torn paper. And then one of the students pulled out the double-edged ax.”

Campus Police had an entirely male staff, and they were very supportive. They asked questions gently, listened, and made no judgements implying that I had done anything wrong in process. They seemed interested only in being kind while getting as many clear, concrete details as possible such as what exactly was said in what order. They asked me if I would be able to identify Persi if shown some photographs and I was confident I would. They put together six photographs and laid them out on the table. Persi was among them. Why would they already have a picture of Persi on file, I asked? The response was disturbing. He had a history of peeping on showering women in the dorms!

This was the final straw and Persi would go before an administrative committee to determine whether he could stay at the university or would be dismissed. He dropped out that semester temporarily. His Latin guy friends were in all of my classes and we were on projects together. When they learned that I was “the bitch” that was getting Persi kicked out of school, they said “Why are you doing that? Persi is just a regular guy that gets horny when he gets drunk!” I explained what had happened and that I did need to be dealing with Persi’s unwanted horniness late at night. Thankfully, the guys got it. As much as they had a brotherhood, they wouldn’t want their sisters treated the same way.

“When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us. We’ve been raised to question what we know, to discount and discredit the authority of our gut.”

Persi returned to school a year later. The committee hearing took place and I was asked to testify. I answered all of their questions calmly and there was a sense of seriousness and impartiality in the room – someone’s future was at stake. But I could feel the committee members vibe shift when I answered there final question, “Was he next to you or behind you as you walked to your room?” Persi was behind me. He was found “responsible” (this was not a court of law) and only then the committee was given access to Persi’s full file so they would have complete information for a disciplinary decision. Using the information in the file, they decided to dismiss him from American University.

It’s a story of a small injustice that was carried through to completion. I can rest easier that perhaps Persi learned his lesson and will not go further in his transgressions against women. There’s no guarantee in that, but I’m satisfied that I found my voice, stood up for myself, and had the opportunity to be supported along the way. I’ve never forgotten that lesson.

“It’s not the lips of a prince that will save us, but our own lips speaking.”

Terry Tempest William’s book, When Women Were Birds is a beautiful and unique autobiographical piece about a mother’s influence on a young Mormon woman during the time of women’s liberation through a radical act – leaving behind years and years and years of blank journals. You can find it here on Amazon.