Assaulting the victim — again

September 24, 2018

In 1968, when I was 8 years old, new to Chicago and home alone, a strange man broke into my apartment. He bound me, assaulted me at knifepoint and held me hostage. Before he left, he promised me that if I ever told, he would come back to kill my mother and my cat.

The police were called. Soon our kitchen was swarming with armed officers. In 1968, Chicago was a segregated city. Martin Luther King Jr. marched on the city in 1966; 1968 was the year of the infamous Democratic convention and police riot; in 1969, the police assassinated Fred Hampton, a young African-American activist. Mayor Richard Daley once said, “The police are not here to create disorder … they are here to preserve disorder.” In Chicago, they seemed to exist to preserve segregation. The man who broke into my apartment and assaulted me happened to be African-American.

The police responded especially aggressively because of their fears of miscegenation (an issue that was not shared by me or my mother), and set out immediately to determine whether I was telling the truth and whether my story would hold up in court. It seemed to me that my kitchen was filled with armed, highly caffeinated, uniformed men, taking turns interrogating me. I was told that if I didn’t repeat the entire story in all its sordid detail to each policeman multiple times, participating in my own vicarious gang rape, the man would come back and kill another little girl and it would be my fault. The police continued to question me until I lost the ability to speak about it.

After all the interrogations and physical examinations, the police began driving me to school for the remainder of the week, prompting the principal, teachers and other students to ply me with intrusive questions as well.

The police response to the assault was even more intrusive, intimidating and damaging than the original assault.

Twenty-six years ago, watching the questioning of Anita Hill during the nominations of Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, I felt I was watching a re-enactment of the Chicago police’s interrogation of me. Now I am watching it happen again, this time against Christine Blasey Ford, who has said that Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh attempted to rape her when the two were in high school.

To add insult to injury, the men who interrogated Hill and who are questioning Ford — and the nominees for the Supreme Court — are doing it so that they can take my rights to make decisions about my body, my health care and my future away from me and my daughter.

It took decades, first for me to remember the assault, then to be able to speak about it or any other facet of my own experience in the first person, and later to learn to write in the first person. But now I know a valuable truth. Nobody can take my life from me. God gave me my life so that I can fully live it. Others can only attempt to intimidate me, but I can refuse to be intimidated or shamed.

There are probably more women who have experienced sexual harassment, bullying or assault than women who have not. Besides being disgusting, bullying and intimidation are tools to keep women from collectively demanding the respect we deserve. I wasn’t in the room when Ford was assaulted and don’t know what happened, but I am in the room now.

Lauren Reichett writes from Rio Arriba County.

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