What is the experience of someone who witnesses someone else sexually assaulting their friend? In part 2 of the “I was sexually assaulted” blog, I speak with my friend Sarah, who was in the room with me when I was grabbed. She also participated in the “restorative justice” session with the man who sexually assaulted me.
Sarah Sperling and Alissa R. Ackerman
Can you tell me a little about what this experience was like for you?
You were sexually assaulted right in front of me and I did nothing. I froze. I got teary eyed but did absolutely nothing. I had envisioned what I would do if this type situation were to ever happen to someone (whether I knew them personally or as a bystander) and it looked nothing like what actually happened. I thought I would have instinctually jumped across the table and stopped it, but instead I just stood there like a deer in headlights and did absolutely nothing. I feel extremely guilty and have played that moment over and over in my head incessantly since it happened.
I don’t remember much about what was happening in the moments surrounding the “grab”. I had that “here but not here feeling”, but the days following were rough. Not only was I dealing with the guilt over my actions (or inaction), your assault brought back memories of my own trauma and fear. I walked around with an overwhelming feeling of “what if” swirling around my brain. The most disturbing "what if" was that what if it were one of my twins standing across the table and that mama bear instinct that I have doesn't kick in and I freeze...AGAIN. My thoughts spiraled. I felt helpless and just wanted to hide.
Why do you think the experience affected you as it did?
I've experienced sexual assault myself. I learned about tonic immobility it in college and the rape crisis counselor at the county explained it to me ad nauseum in the sessions I had, but no one ever explained to me that it could happen to you even when it is not technically happening to you. That part was new for me. I now understand why I froze, but I still cannot let go of the guilt I have for not acting, for just standing there frozen in fear. Although this didn't happen to me directly it still affected me greatly.
What was it like for you to sit down with the man who sexually assaulted me?
You and I have spoken about restorative justice and I’ve always wanted to participate, but when you asked me to meet with him, my first though was “this one was a little too close to home”. I am going to have to see this person around, after all! At first I didn’t think our conversation was going anywhere. I didn’t think he was really understanding what either of us were saying. I thought the whole meeting was going to be a waste of time.
During our meeting, I was able to share a part of my story for the first time and I felt ZERO shame when I spoke. This was something I never thought would happen. As you can imagine, it was a really big deal for me. That alone would have made the meeting completely worthwhile.
What happened after the meeting?
Over the course of the day and the different conversations we each shared with him, I felt compelled to write to him. As odd as it may seem, I wanted to express my gratitude to him for even agreeing to a meeting and his willingness to listen to my story. I wanted him to know I appreciated it.
What ended up happening after that conversation was beautiful and healing. We talked further about what he did, why it wasn't okay, why he was clueless as to why it wasn't okay and why it affected me the way it did. I was able to explain why it affected me as deeply as it did. My words helped him to understand that the impacts of his actions that day reached further than just the person he grabbed. It was really empowering.
Though I was fearful at first, I decided to go ahead with the meeting. I am so glad I did.