Welcome to “The Story We Share,” a series of Q&As that profile two people with similar identities ― but who live in very different places. As part of HuffPost’s Listen To America tour, we’re exploring how people’s lived experiences overlap and diverge depending on their zip codes. What is the “American Experience”? It depends where you look.
Brianna grew up in a house with just her mother in the rainy city of Seattle. Her dad wasn’t around much and she had a few half siblings, but her mom was (and still is) her best friend and confidante. After Brianna graduated from high school, she went off to college in Atlanta. After moving around a bit, she landed in Los Angeles, where she now owns and runs a nonprofit.
Julia grew up in a small town in Ohio with a big, tight-knit family that included her parents and three younger sisters (all of whom also have names starting with the letter J). She always knew she was going to attend the University of Akron, which is only a 20-minute drive from her childhood home and is the same place her parents met. Now, at 27, Julia lives in Washington, D.C., where she just started a job with the Department of Transportation.
These women had virtually nothing in common on paper until they became part of a statistic that altered the course of their lives. Both Brianna and Julia were raped during their first two years at college.
Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos announced last week that she will begin rolling back Obama-era Title IX guidelines. During her speech, DeVos devoted equal time to the stories of survivors and those wrongly accused, as if these two groups are equivalent in size. The news reignited debates around the prevalence of sexual assault, as people on social media discussed the rights of the wrongfully accused and insinuated that survivors “cry rape.”
Too often, when we talk about sexual assault on campus, people imagine two young, drunk kids at a fraternity party. But the reality is that if you talk to 100 or 1,000 survivors, you won’t hear the same story twice. And given that our country has just taken a step back in understanding (and therefore combatting) rape culture, it’s more important than ever to listen to as many of those stories as we can.
Here is what Brianna and Julia say happened to them.
Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual assault.
HuffPost: What was your childhood like?
Brianna (Georgia): I grew up in Seattle, Washington, with a single parent, my mother who had me when she was 15. Seattle is a very eclectic, progressive city. My dad had some drug issues, so he wasn’t really around. I didn’t grow up really religious, but there was definitely a belief in God and something bigger than us. We weren’t very politically active. It was just my mom and I growing up and we focused mostly on education and being the best Brianna I can be.
Julia (Ohio): I grew up in a suburb of Akron, Ohio, which is in northeast Ohio. That’s where my whole family is from. That’s where they still are. My upbringing was beyond idyllic: My parents just celebrated their 30th anniversary, and I have three younger sisters. I was very studious and grades were really important to me. I was also very religious in high school. Not so much anymore. But that was a huge, huge part of my identity, really right up until I was assaulted. I was not a crazy partier by any means. I was very anti-underage drinking, just very against partying in general. Politically, I had friends on both sides of the spectrum, but I grew up in a very staunchly conservative family.
Can you walk me through your assault?
Brianna (Georgia): I went off to college for my sophomore year at Clark Atlanta University. On April 1, 2003, I went out to see my girlfriends in downtown Atlanta. We went to get food after, and ― since I didn’t drink at the time ― I decided to get my car to move it closer to where we were going to eat. When I moved it I had to parallel park and I just happened to tap the car behind me. Some guys got out of the car and started yelling at me that I had hit their car. As the altercation was happening, some guy I didn’t know ran over from across the street to help me and tell these guys to calm down. We eventually exchanged information so me and the guy whose car I had tapped could get in touch about insurance and clear it up the next day.
When the other car had left, the guy who had ran across the street told me, “I think you should move your car because even if you guys are coming from a club and you guys bump into each other again, it probably won’t be the safest thing.” He told me about a parking garage I could park in around the corner, so I did. When I was getting out the car, there was hands around my throat and it was the guy that had been helping me who told me about the parking garage. I don’t know if it was a setup or what. He strangled me until I passed out. When I woke up which was at about 4:18 in the morning ― I remember looking at my car clock ― I was in my passenger seat with my whole seat back. He was driving my car, smoking a cigarette, music on blast, and all I know is that we were clearly on the highway because he was going at a certain speed. I couldn’t move, the nurse later said it was just shock. And then he raped me. I knew he had raped me when I was passed out because I was butt naked, so I put two and two together. He kept me for about seven hours, the whole time I was in and out of consciousness. He ended up pulling into a parking lot and he unclenched my teeth, and he poured something down my throat and I started choking. He’s like, “Get the fuck up!” He was cussing at me and yelling at me, screaming, “Get up! Why’d you let them do that to you?” He acted like it was someone else, as if I didn’t remember every single pore he had in his face while he was choking me. I’m fighting for my life, and I had to do nothing but stare at him the whole time. The idea that he thought that I wouldn’t remember was ironic.
He said, “Why’d you let them do that to you? Look at your fuckin’ self!” And he flipped the mirror down, and he pulled my feet up, and when I looked in the mirror, honestly, I could not recognize myself. My face was completely swollen, my eyes were bloodshot red and I just remember telling myself, “Brianna, do not start crying. Do not start crying.” I don’t know where that strength or where those thoughts came from, but I just said, “I don’t remember anything.” I said, “I do not remember anything. Please, can I get back to my dorm I have a final, I have to go to school. Please.” And he was like, “You don’t remember anything?” And it was the most ironic thing, ’cause he was talking to me, but it was as if he was talking to himself.
“If you were a hoe, you should have told me!” It was all this weird communication. I kept saying, “Please, I need to leave, I need to leave. I just want to go home,” and he was like, “No. Come into the apartment. You can take a shower and stuff,” and I’m like, “No, please, I really have finals,” just trying to get through everything. What seemed like forever, I don’t even know the amount of time we sat there, and he was talking and just talking and talking and talking. And I’m just like, “Please, I just really need to go to finals.” I added, “Thank you so much for helping me.” I was trying to appease him in whatever way because I didn’t know where he was going. He was angry but then he would speak calmly and then angry again and then calmly. He climbed on top of me and made me give him oral sex and then he was like, “That’s for me helping you.”
He finally let me go because I convinced him I had to go back to my dorm to study for finals. He ended up dropping himself off near the Greyhound station, and I got into my driver’s seat and I drove to the dorm.
Julia (Ohio): I always knew that Akron University was where I belonged. In my mind, it was like why am I even going to look at any other college? It was 20 minutes away from my parents’ home and everyone in my family goes to the University of Akron.
It was the second week I was at school my freshman year. It was Labor Day weekend so a lot people went home for the weekend. I had stayed on campus, but my roommate was back at home so I was by myself. I got to talking with one of the guys who lived on my floor very casually. He had gone to high school nearby, and we were talking about our majors and what we wanted out of Akron and stuff. Later on we met up with his friend from high school who also went to Akron. The three of us hung out in the social hall for a while watching videos on my computer. It was a completely normal night. I remember I had pizza in my room. I said, “Hey, do you guys want some pizza?” They said yes. I brought the pizza out. Everyone ― at least, I assumed everyone ― was tired and getting ready to go into their rooms to go to sleep because we had class the next day. The kid who lived on my floor remembered that my grandma had sent me a care package with candy in it, and he asked if he could have some, so I was like, yeah, OK. I get up, I go back to my room thinking I’ll just get this candy and bring it out to the social hall like I already had, and instead they followed me to my room, which I did not see as a red flag at the time really at all.
The second kid lived in a different dorm, so I thought they were just moseying toward the end of the night. So the guy that lived on my floor did, after eating the candy in my doorway he said goodnight and left. I thought this other guy would follow him because they’re friends, especially since I didn’t really know this other person.
I thought, OK, this guy just didn’t understand, you should have followed your friend out of my room. It’s late. We have class. That was all made very clear, and he just did not leave. Just absolutely refused to leave. He kept on wanting to watch videos. My friend had told me before I went to college, she’s like you have to be careful because guys will try to get away with stuff, and I was like I’m going to be fine. I have a boyfriend. If anything ever gets uncomfortable, I’ll just drop that I have a boyfriend, and they’ll leave me alone.
That didn’t work in this situation. I had kind of run out of all of my fail safes I guess, where it’s like how are you not getting the message that I am not interested in you at all? That’s about the time that I realized oh my gosh, he’s not going to leave, and that’s when he raped me. It was just that moment, by the time I realized what was happening, it was too late. Your brain is going to really try to convince you I’m going to get out of this, I’m going to be OK.
Who was the first person you told and how did that conversation go?
Brianna (Georgia): I drove myself to my friend’s dorm where I was staying. When I get to her dorm, I didn’t think she was going to be there, but she was. As soon as I walked in, she was like, “Oh my god, Brianna, what happened to you?” And I was like, “I just need to get in the shower. I just need to get in the shower.” And I think she put two and two together, and she said, “Absolutely not, I’m taking you straight to the hospital.” I thought that she wasn’t going to be there. I was going to take a shower. I was going to go to class and act as if I had been in a fight because I had so many bruises on my face. Looking back on it, it was such a blessing to have her there. She didn’t really have words. All she said was, “You’re gonna be OK.”
Julia (Ohio): After he left, I decided I had to call someone. I called a girl that I knew from high school who had given a testimony at a retreat at church about how she had been assaulted. It was around 5 or 6 in the morning, and she didn’t answer, so I sat there for a couple of minutes, trying to get my bearings and understand what I was supposed to do next, but then she called back. I told her that I’m really scared, I don’t know really what just happened to me. I think I was just raped, and she told me that I should call the police, so I called the police.
What was it like to report your rape?
Brianna (Georgia): My friend and I had to wait a little bit in the waiting room when we got to the hospital. The time just seemed to be really long. Everything just seemed to be really, really long and drawn out. When I got in the nurse was really, really amazing. They were very polite and accommodating and compassionate, which was great to have. But then there was a switch when the detective came and the police came. The line of questioning began: “What were you wearing? Did you know him? Are you sure you didn’t know him?” That part was disgusting to me. I just felt like there was a lack of compassion with the police. The questions, I felt, were very triggering. I think it’s just something that they do every day. It’s the job. They do have to ask those questions.
Julia (Ohio): After I hung up with the girl from high school I called 911 or some type of emergency number, I don’t really remember. I ended up talking to a dispatcher, and I explained my situation. I remember telling her what happened and telling her I’m really scared, that I’m shaking. She stopped me and she said honey, if you said no, it doesn’t matter. That’s rape. He had no right to touch you. She stayed on the line with me until I woke up my RA and the police and paramedics came. The paramedics took me away in a stretcher, which was terrifying. I just kept thinking I hope no one sees me being taken out of my dorm in a stretcher because what are they going to think? It was my first week of college. I don’t want to be a pariah. I don’t want this. I just want to be Julia. I want to be studious and going to school and getting A’s and getting on with my life after high school.
They took me to the hospital, and I remember they took me to an unmarked room where they called in a sexual assault nurse examiner and a rape crisis counselor. The rape crisis woman was by my side pretty much the whole time. She didn’t go in for the actual rape kit examination with me. That was just the nurse. But other than that, she held my hand.
After the rape kit had been done, an officer showed up to take my statement. He said, I’ve been doing this for 12 or 14 years, and I’ve only seen one rape conviction, so I don’t want you to get your hopes up. And the second thing he told me was don’t tell a lot of people about what happened to you because if this does go to trial, the DA will use that to say you did this for attention. You can’t go around talking about this.
What were the first few days after the assault like?
Brianna (Georgia): There was a lot of crying, it was pretty surreal. When my mom came, there was a lot more crying, but the beautiful thing about my mother is I remember when she first came, she was already a hot mess. You could tell she’d been crying on her way from Seattle to Atlanta. She hugged me for like 30 minutes. I cried, she cried, and we just cried in that moment.
As soon as I opened the door, we sat down and she said, “You know what? No matter what has happened to you, you survived. I want you to feel whatever you’re feeling, and be OK with those feelings, and be compassionate with yourself, and know that you’re gonna get through this. I’m going to be here with you every step of the way.”
I just cried a lot that day. I didn’t even realize you have that many tears in your body, that much water in your body. It was just a lot of tears, and a lot of sleeping and waking up crying, and sleeping, and nightmares. That was my 24 hours and that was a lot of my month too, until I really kind of healed a little bit.
Julia (Ohio): By the time I was done writing my police statement and doing my physical exam, I called my dad. I thought somebody had already told him what had happened, but nobody had. He picked up the phone, and was joking around telling me my mom had been looking for me, and I was like wait, has no one told you what happened?
That was the hardest phone call that I’ve ever made for sure. I just remember hearing this really loud crash or banging on the other side of the line and my dad just screaming. I don’t think he went back to work that whole week.
I remember my three little sisters, Jennifer was 16, Jessica was 12, and Janelle was 9, maybe. When I came back from the hospital, each of them were told something slightly different about what happened to me. Jennifer, we called into the family room and my mom tried to start saying what happened, and her voice just completely went, and she just closed her eyes and shook her head. So I told my sister. I told her I had been raped last night. The first thing I said was, “I just want you to know that it doesn’t matter what you do, nobody ever gets to touch you like that unless you want them to.” Jessica was told that a bad man had done a bad thing to Julia, and then Janelle was told that something bad happened to Julia.
It’s hard, looking back to think that I should have just been ruder. I should have just said no, get the fuck out of my room. You don’t belong here. I don’t want you here anymore. But again, it was the first week of college. I didn’t want to be seen as the crazy girl or the bitch or the person who’s causing drama or overreacting. I grew up in a huge bubble. This kind of stuff didn’t happen to people like me. I did not party. I wasn’t sleeping around. I wasn’t frequently with people who I didn’t know, and even when I was, those people certainly didn’t try to assault me.
What was the healing process like?
Brianna (Georgia): After the assault my mom wanted me to go back to Seattle, but I just couldn’t. I was like, “No, I have to stay here. I need to finish school. If I transfer, then all my credits will be gone.” I was in that mindset. It was an interesting time, because as much as I had my emotional issues internally, it never showed. I was able to talk about what happened to me. Then I started meeting so many other girls who were raped that it was insane, but it helped me realize I wasn’t alone at all. And that really helped.
I went to therapy, but my mom was really my number one therapist. I went through a really, really trying time where I started to drink. I couldn’t sleep. I used to struggle a lot with insomnia. There were times I thought I had seen him, or someone who reminded me of him. Being in the same city where I was assaulted and not knowing who my attacker was or where he was, there were a lot of triggers.
I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my mother. I was on the phone and she was asking me how I was doing. I said, “I’m good. I’m good.” She was like, “Brianna, sit down, wherever you are. Sit down. You’re not good. You’re not fucking good. And it’s fine that you’re not good. You need to really deal with what you experienced, and what you’re feeling. You’re just acting like everything’s OK. It’s not going to help you heal. You have to be compassionate with yourself.” My mom told me, “If you want to cry, cry. If you want to say you’re not doing good at all, it’s OK to admit that. If you’re angry, it’s OK to have that anger. It’s OK, but you have to feel.”
That’s when I started allowing myself to feel again, and not having to drink to cover up me being super emotional all the time. That was a really pivotal moment in my life.
Julia (Ohio): I was actually back in class a day or two after I was assaulted. I was an honors student, couldn’t miss class. I had asked our student judicial affairs office that our dining halls be changed because I didn’t want to have to see my attacker every time I ate a meal. They told me they couldn’t accommodate me because there was only one dining hall. So they told me to go eat early in the morning or late at night.
Back then you couldn’t take food out. So that meant potentially three times a day, I was eating in an environment where I knew there was a chance that I was going to see him. So I didn’t really eat anymore.
I joined Greek life, about three weeks after I was assaulted. I had lost about 10 pounds by then. I was really sick. I was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder about a month later and given medicine for that. I was on antidepressants and acting a little bit erratic, which in hindsight makes sense. But at the time, when you were just this crazy freshman girl who cannot tell you why she’s acting crazy and having panic attacks, it was very stressful.
A person from the student judicial affairs office told me that once I went through the judicial process at school I couldn’t appeal it. She advised me to not go through the process yet because all of my evidence was in police custody, so I wouldn’t have as strong of a case as I would if I waited, which was not correct. Now I know. Anyway, I told myself I’d stick it out for six or eight weeks or however long it would take for my rape kit to come back. I thought once that’s done, then I’m going to report through campus. But my rape kit didn’t come back for 21 months.
That’s when I began feeling that nobody cared about this at all. 2009, bar none, was the worst year of my life. It was just miserable. Even though I was raped at the end of 2008. 2009 takes the cake.
For the first time in my life, I didn’t get any A’s that semester, and for the first time in my life, I actually failed a class, which was so devastating. That was never supposed to happen. That should not have happened. I ended up having to drop a class that semester.
That was horrible, because again, well, who am I if I’m not good-grade Susie? I did ultimately lose my honors scholarship, even though I wrote a petition to the scholarship board that they should not take it. They did take it, so I moved off campus and got a job to make up for that, which again meant I didn’t have a lot of time to do sorority stuff or social stuff. I didn’t have as much time to study. It was a mess. People don’t realize all of this residual stuff.
All of that made me mad because I knew that my GPA was important to getting a job after college, and I kept thinking this fucking guy has ruined my entire life. Because my GPA is so low now, it’s not a representation of who I am as a worker. It’s not going to help me get a good job and everyone knows that the first job, the first salary you get is important to the rest of your career. I felt that the assault ruined the trajectory of my life.
What did you learn about the criminal justice system during the reporting process? Do you feel the system failed you in any way?
Brianna (Georgia): I just learned that it can be unfair. Do I feel like it failed me? Yes. They eventually found my attacker about two years later in Miami. His DNA matched the DNA from my rape kit. It took another year to go to trial. He was charged with rape, aggravated assault, robbery and kidnapping. His whole testimony was pretty much that we met, and that’s how I liked it, and that’s what I wanted. It was pretty much his word against my word and his lawyer’s defense. He was found not guilty. Right after the trial I was like, “I’m out of here. I’ve got to go.” I moved to New York within that week. I left my car, left my apartment.
I don’t think that it was his first time, and I don’t think that it would be his last either, especially being that he got away. I think the justice system failed me and whoever can be another victim to him again.
Justice for me was really finding myself again after everything that happened, and really understanding that my purpose in life is bigger than I can even imagine. Justice is just finding peace with everything that happens in life. At the end of the day, trauma is trauma. People deal with trauma in so many variables or ways. As long as you’re able to have a good support system and I think, a faith, you can always walk through fire and be burned. But as long as you know how to put those patches and cream on your body, you’re gonna win.
Julia (Ohio): I do feel that I got justice for what happened to me. Generally yes, because I know the statistics. The police were like everything that you said was verified by the rape kit, and everything that he said was not. I hate to say that I was lucky, but I was lucky that the prosecutor took my case. People don’t realize that that’s up to the discretion of the prosecutor’s office.
I think his jail sentence was 180 days, 178 of which were deferred, and the one day he spent in jail already counted, so he really didn’t spend more than three days in jail. He had to go to therapy and was on probation for awhile. I had a restraining order so I could finally go places in peace and have control over my own situation.
I can’t say that I’m happy with the fact that he served so little jail time and isn’t a registered sex offender, but this still is documented. This is still final. I know when I look at the statistics that one percent of rapists spend a day in jail. I know that my rapist is one of them. Even though he only spent a few days in jail.
That’s when I was like OK, I can move on with my life now. I felt like I wasn’t crazy. I call it social gaslighting, where it’s like, “Oh well, maybe if no one really cares about this, and it doesn’t seem to be an issue for anyone else then it’s not a big deal.” When people around you don’t act, they convince you that what happened to you didn’t.
I felt that I had been vindicated. I had gotten whatever justice I was going to get. I got to go back to being me before this happened. It really was a nice day.
These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.