In the early morning of July 17, somewhere 40,000 feet above one of the Great Lakes, I woke up as a victim of sexual assault.
I was on a red-eye flight from LAX to JFK and I was traveling with my sister, brother-in-law and niece for a few days of family bonding in New York City. We were seated apart since I booked my ticket separately, but I didn’t mind because I planned to sleep every minute of the journey.
Upon boarding the plane, I learned that I was not only sitting in the dreaded middle seat, but that I was also seated next to every exhausted flyer’s worst nightmare ― the chatty passenger.
He looked harmless enough: 50s, white and well-dressed. But from the moment I sat down, he began to talk. I quickly discovered, without prompt, that he was on his way to New York to see his wife and two young daughters and that he found it impossible to sleep on planes.
I replied that I could sleep easily, and hoping that he’d get the hint, I wrapped myself in my jacket and told him I intended to sleep during the flight as I was incredibly tired. I mean, how else can you politely tell someone to leave you alone when you’re going to be sitting next to them for the next five hours?
Unfortunately, replying to him was like letting the floodgates open.
“Are you coming or going?” he asked in what was the first of a barrage of banal questions. “Where are you from? Why are you so tired? Are you cold?”
I continued to speak casually about myself, my husband, my travels, and my studies of mental health. I kept yawning throughout, but he was clearly eager for conversation.
We stopped talking as the plane took off and the jets roared, so I drifted off to sleep. I later awoke to the man speaking to the flight attendant. He had bought me a pair of blankets. I tried paying him back, but he refused and insisted I take them.
The gesture made me uncomfortable but wanted to believe he was just being nice. I thanked him and, more out of feelings of obligation, I continued to chat until the plane’s lights were dimmed and another passenger told him to hush. I used that as a cue to tuck underneath the blankets and fell into a deep sleep.
Hours later, I woke up to the distinct feeling of being touched. My pantsuit romper must had ridden up as I slept because I could feel a set of fingers under my blanket stroking the underside of my right bare thigh. I couldn’t tell if the man to my right, who had been speaking to me earlier, was snoring or deeply breathing. I was groggy and ― hoping that it was an accident due to the proximity of the seats — I said nothing and shifted my body slightly. He promptly removed his fingers, but I stayed awake practically holding my breath.
Within a couple of minutes, I felt a deft hand creep under my blanket again and place itself fully over the same thigh.
“I woke up to the distinct feeling of being touched. ... I could feel a set of fingers under my blanket stroking the underside of my right bare thigh.”
I lost my voice. I couldn’t scream. I couldn’t move. I felt paralyzed. It was like I had been holding my breath for so long that it became trapped in my lungs.
But in the seconds that followed my shock, the hand began to creep higher up my thigh until I forced myself to grab it off and shove it back toward its owner.
I removed my blankets and, still in silent shock, turned to the assaulter. The man was awake, stuttering, “I’m sorry, I wasn’t sure but you seemed interested.” He closed his eyes and turned his head away from me.
The plane was dark and quiet. Everyone was sleeping, including the assaulter, whom I could hear snoring — or pretending to snore ― again. I wrestled with the idea of alerting someone for help. I felt trapped in my middle seat and in my thoughts: How could he think I was interested in him? Was it because I accepted the blankets? Is this my fault? What do I do now? Will I be questioned why I froze or why I wasn’t brave enough to scream right when it happened? Has too much time passed? What if I press the flight attendant button now? No, but then I’ll have to speak and what if he hears me?
I couldn’t speak but I could write. I took out my phone and did the only thing that I could think to do at that moment. I typed and typed until the plane began its descent. The man woke up but never left his seat. Even more frustrating and unbelievable, he began to talk to me again like nothing had happened but I refused to engage with him.
Fortunately, the woman seated to my left, who had been sleeping with her earbuds in since our departure, had finally woken up. In the pretense of looking out the window, I placed my phone on our shared armrest and when we eventually made eye contact, I signaled for her to take my phone.
The woman silently read what I had typed, her eyes quickly growing wide in alarm. She nodded in response to my plea for help and then waited with me until the man had disembarked. She escorted me to the nearest flight attendant and shielded me as the other passengers streamed past.
I gasped for breath as I tried to push the first words out of my mouth since I fell asleep.
“I woke up… The man sitting next me… He groped me,” I whispered weakly. I began to sob.
The cabin crew sprang into action and immediately alerted airport security to flag the passenger who had assaulted me. After reuniting with my sister, we left the plane and were met by a security officer who brusquely asked for my statement, any identifying features of the man, and my driver’s license. I also provided him with a short, dark video I had managed to take of the man just before he exited the plane.
The officer asked if I wanted to press charges. I could barely work out how I was feeling and I broke down in a fresh wave of tears.
He groped me. He’s a predator. But he has a wife and kids. Is it worth it to ruin their lives? And my sister’s vacation? I don’t want to ruin that too. Would it be selfish to tell them ― my husband, my parents, my friends? I don’t want to hurt them. But I can’t keep this a secret.
I tried not to let my crying wake my 4-year-old niece peacefully asleep in her stroller, but then it struck me ― is this what the future holds for her too?
“I had been asleep. I didn’t consent to what that man did to me. “I want to press charges,” I finally said.”
I cried for her. I cried for me. I cried for being groped on the plane. I cried for being solicited in London. I cried for being chased in Paris. I cried for being catcalled in Beirut. I cried for my previous silence and for the part of me that felt betrayed by both the world and my inaction in the moment of assault.
And then I started crying for every girl who felt like me and the ones who I feared might end up feeling like me as well.
“Yes. Me too,” I choked out, “Metoometoometoometoometoo.” I sat hunched and rocking, reverently whispering these words that I have heard so often in the past year but was never brave enough to say myself. I had kept the past in the past for far too long.
I had been asleep. I didn’t consent to what that man did to me. “I want to press charges,” I finally said.
It’s been two weeks since the incident on the plane. Unfortunately, my assaulter was able to leave the airport before security could find him. The police told me that the crew members had cooperated in giving them the passenger’s contact information and that the FBI and TSA would be notified. I emailed the airline twice in the week following, but haven’t heard any updates from them or any other agency since then.
I shortened my trip to New York City to give myself a break, but I’m still planning on flying alone to England next month and China after that. This assault made me stronger ― not weaker ― because I did something that I think is just as brave as reacting in the moment: I found my voice and spoke up when I felt ready.
It took some time, but it didn’t matter to the flight attendant who hugged me, or the police officer who thanked me, or my husband who supported me. Each time I told my story, the experience was no less painful or shameful, but I spoke up.
Hours before my flight home from New York, I lucked out in getting a standing room ticket to the “Mean Girls” musical. Watching the show, I suddenly and unexpectedly felt it was speaking directly to me:
A girl’s gotta do
What a girl’s gotta do
I did it for me, sure
But really for you!
So that you can live fearlessly too
The message was clear: Standing up to a predator, especially one you’ve grown accustomed being nice to, doesn’t make you mean. It makes you fearless.
It’s these words that give me hope that my niece will grow up in a world where #MeToo is no longer trending. It’s these words that give me hope that I will never allow myself to stay silent ever again. And it’s these words that give me hope that my story can help even one other woman find her voice too.