Note: This post contains graphic details regarding sexual assault and violence.
Ekwan Hill was released 10 days ago after serving almost a year in prison for sexually assaulting a woman on the Upper East Side. He will never remember the name of the woman whom he attacked, and she will never forget his.
I know this, because that woman is me.
Do you remember the story about the victim who was sodomized with feces in a random attack of sexual violence on the Upper East Side a year ago today? I was the one who was violently grabbed on East 74th Street, with the sun shining, while talking to my mother on my phone.
When the man grabbed me and reached into my shorts, I was the one who fought, struggling to get away, while his hands violently went farther into me, refusing to let go.
The specifics of the story, which graced the covers of the New York City newspapers and led the local newscasts for about a week, have probably faded from your memory, but the details of the utterly bizarre assault on that beautiful June day have haunted my consciousness every day for the past 12 months. I refuse to allow the attack to define me, but after the most challenging year of my life, I am finally able to accept that it will always be a part of me.
Twelve months ago, when the attack first happened, I had no choice but to allow the newspapers to tell the story for me. Instead of offering my comments or sharing my name and face, I simply concentrated on keeping my head above water and on staving off constant panic and anxiety. I had been assaulted, and now the worst moments of my life were being reported on without my voice. It felt like just one more thing being done to me without my consent.
I seethed inside, but I know that the time was not right for me to publicly come forward ― I was too traumatized, too frightened, too vulnerable. But now, on the one-year anniversary of the assault, remaining silent feels so wrong, and speaking out feels so right. It is time to show my face, to share my name, and to tell you about my experience as the victim of a violent and very public sexual assault.
I had been assaulted, and now the worst moments of my life were being reported on without my voice. It felt like just one more thing being done to me without my consent.
I am not just the woman in the blurry video footage whom you may have pitied or made jokes about. I am a survivor, and am ready to share my story.
How many times have we all heard phrases like, “2016 was a shitty year,” or “2016 was an utter shit show”? The irony of these statements is not lost on me, but my terrible year was not defined by global chaos or the election of an unpopular president. Instead, my own personal nightmare occurred on June 27 of that year and did indeed include, for lack of a more elegant term, shit.
My life changed that day at 6:15 p.m. on East 74th Street and First Avenue. It was a summer evening, and the sun was not even close to setting. I strolled to meet my boyfriend wearing the clothes I had worn to my job as a teacher at a charter school for children with autism ― shorts, a tank top and a jean jacket.
I felt safe. There was no reason not to.
I sensed someone behind me, but because it was a narrow sidewalk, and because I was in a “safe” neighborhood, I assumed he was going to pass me. I could not have been more wrong.
Suddenly, I felt rough hands violently grab me around the waist. As I tried to spin around, his force overpowered me. His hand, which held the bag of dog shit, pushed past the elastic waistband of my shorts, into my underwear and then, into my body. I tried to jump forward, but he used one arm to hold my waist and the other to continue to invade me from behind.
I finally broke free and ran into a parking garage, looking back briefly to make sure he was not following me. I saw him take off a glove, throw it into a pile of garbage bags, and break into a light jog. I staggered into the garage, shaking while I screamed and sobbed for help. While the kind garage attendants called the police, I managed to reach out to a few friends and family members for help.
Minutes later, in a cramped and gloomy garage bathroom, I stood with a friend who had brought me fresh clothing and had no choice but to face exactly what had happened to me. I was in shock.
Feeling disgusted, I wanted all of the “evidence” off of me as quickly as possible. Despite my immediate desire to grab wipes and clean myself, my recent stint on a grand jury months before informed what I did next. I asked my friend to take a picture of my backside, because I knew a photo could serve as evidence to verify the severity and sexual nature of the assault. My instincts later turned out to be spot-on.
Once I changed into clean clothes, I spoke with the two police officers (one male, one female) who had arrived on the scene, preparing to take a victim statement of a potential “harassment.” I stopped the male officer as he pulled out his notepad and said, “This is not harassment ― what happened to me is sexual assault. I have a picture, and I am sure there is video surveillance of the attack because it happened right in front of this garage.”
I watched the female police officer with pleading eyes, hoping she would understand, and she did. She asked if I minded showing just her the photo, and after seeing it, immediately nodded to the male officer and calmly said, “We need to get SVU down here, now.”
The rest of my evening was spent at the local Special Victims Unit, relaying my story to incredulous police officers, vacillating between shock and tears.
Fortunately for my justice, my assault was indeed caught on the parking garage’s video surveillance camera. Unfortunately for my dignity, the video went viral within a day. The “Upper East Side Poop Attack” led the 11 p.m. news on most affiliates, and on June 29, I awoke to discover that my assault had made the cover of the New York Daily News. The headline read, “Diarrhea of a Madman.”
The media generally approached my story with a mixture of disgust and humor, and while I was grateful for the coverage in hopes that it would help identify the perpetrator, I was now exposed to a level of notoriety I had never expected. I watched as my story trended on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, even showing up on some of my Facebook friends’ walls. In the reports, the victim’s name was withheld and her face blurred out of still images and video, so how could any of my friends or acquaintances guess that they knew her and that she was reading their jokes and comments?
Fortunately for my justice, my assault was indeed caught on the parking garage’s video surveillance camera. Unfortunately for my dignity, the video went viral within a day.
I also could not blame the strangers being interviewed on television, with their sickened reactions to the footage. They had been shown a video without sound or a zoom function ― they could not hear my repeated screams of “let me go,” or see how deeply violated I was. They were relieved that it had not happened to them, and I understood, but I still searched, usually unsuccessfully, for any signs of empathy. To the people who did not know me, or did not know it was me, I was almost a fictional character; my closest friends and family saw my anguish, my pain, my humiliation, but it felt as though the rest of the city saw my trauma only as a punch line of a joke or as a talking point for debates about mental health and homelessness.
In the end, though, mere days later, that video served its purpose. The footage is what ultimately led to the arrest of the man to whom those hands belonged. His name is Ekwan Hill, and he was captured at a Brooklyn homeless shelter.
After Hill’s arrest, I returned to the SVU to identify the man who had taken everything from me. Six weeks later, I testified about what he had done to me in front of strangers who composed the grand jury that later indicted him. In that grand jury room, I was in control of my story and encouraged to tell it. I was not an obscured, muted image but instead had a face and a voice, and I was finally permitted to reveal the gruesome details of the attack. These men and women could see my fear, my shame, and my resolve to find justice. I told them about intimate parts of my body and how this man had warped them. Based on my testimony, the positive identification from the lineup, the surveillance video, and the photo my friend had taken in the bathroom, the grand jury indicted Hill on the felony of sexual abuse in the first degree.
Hill’s indictment provided me with great relief and vindication, but it did not change that I had been victimized and was suffering. In the weeks that followed the attack, I had rapidly developed mild agoraphobia, choosing to remain in the safe confines of my apartment rather than face the unfathomable dangers that might lurk outside. Upon leaving my home, I walked the city streets as if in a war zone, acutely aware that every stranger could, at any second, turn into a perpetrator.
It felt as though the rest of the city saw my trauma only as a punch line of a joke or as a talking point for debates about mental health and homelessness.
Memories of the attack seeped into even the most banal of my daily decisions and existence. I worried for the girl on the street wearing a short skirt as I swaddled myself in unnecessary layers, remembering what happened to me and fearing for what could happen to her. In the days immediately after my attack, I wrote about the details of my assault, concerned I might forget them. Now a year later, I think what wishful thinking and naïve that was, to think I could have ever forgotten a single detail of those horrible moments.
So many victims of sexual assault who come forward weeks, months or years later are immediately faced with suspicion. Why didn’t they share what happened immediately? For what purpose are they coming forward? As I hid for a year, anguishing over wanting to share my story but wondering if I would ever feel ready to do so, well-meaning loved ones told me, “you have nothing to be ashamed of ― this was not your fault.”
Of course I rationally knew this, but it has taken a year to understand that shame is a huge part of what I had to overcome to transform from feeling like a victim to feeling like a survivor. A victim’s journey between the moment of a traumatic event and when she is ready to discuss it publicly is so complex that, unless it has happened to you, you cannot truly understand the turbulent psychological process that takes you from shame to empowerment, and it simply does not occur overnight. Even when you feel stronger and less victimized, fear of the unknown can still hold you back from revealing your trauma. You may have come to terms with what happened to you, and are ready to live again, but how will you deal with the reaction once your story is known? How will your going public affect your loved ones and your relationships? Will this event define you in the eyes of others?
There is a certain degree of safety and security keeping something as traumatic as sexual assault to oneself. I was terrified of being seen differently by friends, colleagues and acquaintances. Initially, keeping my story to myself was a means of self-preservation. But as time passed, I felt a visceral need to tell my story, caring less about outside opinions and more about freedom from keeping a secret so painful, it could not possibly be carried by one person.
There is no statute of limitations to revealing details of an assault. After testifying before the grand jury, I realized that discussing my attack made me feel brave. I learned that each time I told my story to a trusted person in my life, I felt lighter, as if portions of the weight I carry with these memories are lifted. I yearn to be in control of my own narrative and believe that I can continue to heal through finally sharing publicly what happened to me on June 27, 2016.
It has taken a year to understand that shame is a huge part of what I had to overcome to transform from feeling like a victim to feeling like a survivor.
Being sexually assaulted will not define my life, but it is an event that undoubtedly has and will continue to shape me. A year later, I am proud that fear no longer holds me back from sharing what happened to me, in my own voice and in my own way, and that I am brave and confident enough to say that I am the survivor of sexual assault.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.