This week, as hundreds of women made public their experiences of harassment and abuse, I interviewed the man who assaulted me when I was 17.
This has been a familiar news cycle about men who abuse women and the things women do to survive that abuse. There have been familiar denouncements and familiar hashtags and a familiar dread that comes with knowing we will be back here again soon. But as women have repeatedly mined their own histories to expose how many of us have these experiences in common, it is unlikely that the men who have harmed us will be asked to answer for it.
Which is why I decided to find Chris. The pursuit felt more clinical than personal; I did not want closure, or to make him feel sorry. I wanted to answer, or work toward answering, this question I have about what we’re meant to do with the men who hurt women. There are so many of them.
I met Chris (not his real name) when I was 17 and he was in his early 20s. He lived in a punk house in another city with eight or so other people. Most of them were my friends, which is why I stayed there a lot. That house, like all punk houses, was a living organism: people lived two to a room to save money, rotated friends in and out as they either moved or went on tour. But everyone there, whether you knew them or not, had been brought in by someone you knew. It was a process based on trust but also one that aligned with the weird social ecosystem we were trying to build—feminist, anti-racist, ambiently radical. We trusted each other to take care of each other.
And so I slept in Chris’ room that night because it was a place to sleep, and Chris assaulted me while I slept. It was the first time I had met him, and the last time I would ever see him.
I found Chris on a Wednesday more than a decade later. I interviewed him on a Monday. He was remorseful and anxious to have me believe his remorse. He repeated himself a lot. At different moments, when he sounded especially nervous, I tried to reassure him: I had asked him to do something difficult; he didn’t need to have all the answers. It was hard to hear myself say this to him, much as I might believe it.
Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity. Identifying details have been taken out.
How would you describe what happened that night? Can you tell me anything about what you remember thinking?
It was a long time ago. It’s strange because it was so long ago but kind of fresh still. I remember I was very inexperienced with anything [sexual] at the time, and, you know, I hadn’t been with anyone or anything like that before. I think back then I just didn’t realize how to go about something, what even asking consent was and things like that. I thought someone just went along with it, and it just happened. Of course I’ve learned since then, since that night. It’s just one of those things. I mean, you didn’t do anything that made me think you wanted me to do anything like that. It was just me thinking that I could have a chance if I tried. Obviously, that was the wrong, you know, idea.
I was coming to hang out a lot, and the house where you lived was kind of a central gathering place. I couldn’t remember how it ended up that I was sleeping in your room that night, but I remember going to bed earlier than other people. I remember going to bed alone. What I do remember very clearly is being asleep and then being woken up by what you were doing to me. I remember the disoriented feeling of shock that it was happening.
I kind of just remember being in bed, and that you were there. And that you were in my bed. You didn’t invite anything. At the time, I didn’t think straight about it. I thought, “Oh, she’s in my bed. Maybe it’s okay if I try something.” And then for some reason thinking you weren’t asleep or something.
Did it ever occur to you that I was sleeping?
I didn’t think you were sleeping. I thought you were okay with it or something. I know that isn’t the case, but at the time that is what I thought.
I guess—what did you read as “okay”? I am just thinking about my sleeping body and it’s hard for me to understand that.
Well, I didn’t think you were asleep. You didn’t pull away because you were asleep, I guess. But thinking that because you didn’t pull away—it’s hard for me to remember. But because you are in my bed and I’m thinking, “Okay, I can try something here.” Obviously, not the right idea, but that is what is going through my head at the time. Again, I was really inexperienced at the time. I just thought this was the first chance I was going to get. So, yeah.
So I did wake up, but I didn’t do anything at first. I think because I was in shock, but I was also trying to think about how I was going to make you aware that I had woken up and that I now knew what you were doing.
What I remember is when you did make it clear that you were awake, you turned—I don’t know if you turned over, but I remember seeing your face and you said something like, “If you touch me again I am going to break your fucking arm.” That is definitely in my memory. I remember thinking, I understand. And for some reason it immediately all hit me that I did something really bad.
Well, I think it was because I told you.
Well, obviously. But I guess it was the way that hit all of a sudden. For me, you know, it was like, Oh my god. Because I thought of myself as someone who thought very highly of women. I thought of myself as even a feminist. And here I am being one of those people you hear about.
Can you say more about that? I felt like it was a punk utopia at that time in my life. I thought everybody was so cool, and we all shared these politics. That is the version of me that would say yes to sleeping in basically a stranger’s bed. Because you knew my friends, and it was just a place to sleep. I had this idea that my friends would not be friends with a person it wouldn’t be okay to sleep in a bed with.
That community that we were both a part of was definitely about equality. Women were very strong in our scene. People wouldn’t have been around if they didn’t agree with that or understand it. And I definitely did, also. Obviously you were surprised by what happened, and I was surprised by myself. But I have to take ownership of that, too, because I did it. I was definitely disappointed in myself. And it definitely made me confused about who I was, trying to reconcile my thoughts and my actions. That kind of thing. I just didn’t want to be one of those people, but I was. I am.
So it was still the middle of the night as this is happening. I remember I left the room, went to another room, and basically waited out the morning until I could catch a bus back to New York. What did you do?
I was just wide awake in fear about what everyone was going to know in how many hours or whatever it was. I just wanted to get out of there and that kind of thing. I just wanted to take it back, I wanted to apologize and make it okay, but you can’t at that point. I don’t know. I remember just being very afraid. Nervous, guilty, ashamed, everything.
Something I have thought about is what would have happened if I hadn’t woken up. Would you have stopped?
My honest answer to that is—because I didn’t have much experience and stuff with girls and everything—I know myself enough that taking it that far, even with consent, would have been a big step for me. I don’t know if I would have just done that on my own. But then again, I did the other shit on my own. I don’t remember thinking that was what I wanted to do, but I do remember thinking that I wanted to do what I did.
I don’t know what happened after I left the house. That was, I think, the first time we had met. It was also the last time I ever saw you.
I remember leaving. Whatever day that happened on, if that was a weekend, I remember going back to the house on a Tuesday to get shit. By then, obviously, everyone knew what was going on. So there were two main house guys, the guys who had stayed there the longest. One of them was painting in his room and I remember him saying, “Come here, I want to talk to you.” And I remember saying, “What about?” And he said, “You know what about.” And I remember owning up to it and saying that I fucked up. And him saying like, “I’m glad you’re owning up to it but we can’t be putting up with that. And we can’t be seen as people who do, because we aren’t those types of people.”
I had to go back one more time a few days later, and I saw another guy that had lived there for a while. It was really early in the morning, so a lot of people were sleeping. But I think he heard me come in and so he talked to me for a minute. I think his father was a psychiatrist or a psychologist and he suggested to me that I should go try to educate myself. I don’t know exactly what he said but the impression was that it sounded like I needed to learn what consent was. And I said that I thought he was right. And I did.
What did you do?
I don’t remember the name of it, but it was like a course at a hospital in the area. Like a one-day course. I don’t want to say “course” but that might be the only name for it. Everyone else there was clearly there because they had been told to go by a court. I don’t remember much of it because I feel like I was blank the whole time. Like, Why am I here? Oh my god, I want to get out of here. To be honest, I don’t even know if I stayed for the whole thing. I was scared.
Did you move back home?
I did move back home. I didn’t talk to anybody I knew from that time [back in the city] for a long, long time. Years and years. The guilt from it weighed on me a lot. I didn’t know what to do about it. The fact that I even felt guilty made me feel guilty. Like what right do I have, you know? Knowing now, being older, I would know to go seek professional help, to talk to a psychiatrist or something like that. But I was really depressed from it. I was maybe back home for two or three years. I was hanging out with my hometown friends, just drinking and just trying to ignore all of that shit. But I couldn’t, so I was just partying and drinking a lot.
The people we knew stopped talking to you.
Of all those people that we knew, maybe two or three of them I still talk to. But even that took a long time, to get to that point. And it was never friends like we were.
When you were home, did you talk about why you were home?
My best friend knew, but that was probably it. I was obviously ashamed of it. I didn’t want anyone to know about it.
I remember I got a letter of apology from you. I remember reading it and throwing it away. I don’t remember what it said, just that you had small, tight handwriting.
I wanted to apologize. I remember that I did write it, but I don’t remember what I wrote. I am sure it was not—it couldn’t have covered everything or made it all okay, but I remember writing it.
I remember being enraged when I saw the letter. I felt like you had intruded into my life, and I felt like you should have had to ask permission to send a letter to me that I would have to look at and see your name on.
Yeah, that is understandable.
I know a couple of months later I did move to that city. And I remember being surprised how quickly news of what happened had spread through our scene. So people who didn’t know me still knew something had happened to me. It was hard. Did that feeling, how maybe everybody knew, reach you when you were back home? How have you thought about all of this in the years since?
I thought about it a lot for a long time. It definitely affected me in the way I related to people for a while. But, as time goes on, everything like that, obviously it gets further away because of time. But it’s strange. When you contacted me, it’s one of those things that’s like, “Oh, of course she would still think about that once in awhile like I do.” It’s a huge thing. But because it happened so long ago, it almost becomes like the details get harder to remember. But now it comes rushing back a little bit because we are confronting it. I remember wanting to talk to you, but not thinking it was my place.
Did you ever try to look me up?
No, I was scared to even look you up online. I didn’t even want to see the reminder of what I did, I guess. It took a long time for me to have long periods where I maybe didn’t think about it. Or where I could think about it more objectively. The fact that you contacted me about it—on the one hand, I feel like you kind of have given me an opportunity to tell you that I wanted to take responsibility for it. I don’t think you asked for anything like [what I did to you]. But it also shows me that what I did affected you still, because you even thought to contact me to begin with. It just shows the long-lasting results that something like that can have.
Did that night change anything about how you approached women sexually?
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. For sure, for sure. I just didn’t for a long time, like years and years. And when I did, I was scared and made things very clear. To me it was almost a dangerous position to be in, because I was scared about not making sure that things were on the up and up [and consent was clear]. I can say I definitely made sure I never made anything like that happen again or whatever. It definitely affected that for a long, long time. A long time.
Because of that, it sort of shocked me into recognizing what I’m doing, or what can happen if you don’t—do you know what I mean, you know? I am older now, and I know how to go about things. But back then, it was a harsh lesson. But it was a lesson that I learned. Unfortunately, it sucks that it was at the cost of you. It made it clear to me what is right and wrong about those situations.
Did you talk about it with other people? I haven’t in a long time, but I have had conversations with friends about how it affected me.
I have with girls I have been in relationships with. Moreso years ago, because, like you said, it’s a little more distant now. But it took me awhile to get comfortable being open. When you’re with someone, they want to know why you act the way you do. I haven’t had a lot of relationships or anything, but the few that I did, it definitely came up. Obviously, they were understanding about it and all that kind of thing, without excusing it. But yeah, I definitely talked about it.
I felt grateful to not have had to see you or think about you in all these years. But I also always wondered if you had just fucked off to somewhere else and did what you did to me to someone else. I felt guilt, or maybe frustration, but I didn’t know what another way would have looked like.
I mean, that is the question I would have, too. For someone. But I feel thankful to say it was the end of it. But like I said before, at what cost? It’s horrible. And I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. But I am glad at least that I did get scared enough into realizing that I needed to change how I went about things and everything.
There is a part of me, still, that thinks you just want me to believe you are a good guy.
That is what I would think, too. It’s one of those things where I was kind of waiting for you to be like, Are you fucking bullshitting me right now? I mean, I don’t know how to tell you that I am being totally honest with you. I don’t know if “opportunity” is the right word, but I am thankful to have the opportunity to tell you it didn’t happen again. I think because of the type of crowd we were hanging out with, we were so up on equality and safety and this and that. I thought of myself as one of those people, and then I found myself in this other column. A person who did something like that. It kind of shook me to attention.
So I had written down this question asking if you had assaulted other women. And then I had another question written down, which was if you would even tell me if you had.
That’s the other thing. It’s like, I want you to believe, but how can you? I don’t know how. All I can do is tell you that I didn’t. And to just hope that somehow, somewhere, someday, you’ll maybe realize that it’s the truth. Because it is. I wanted the opportunity to tell you that it didn’t happen again. I did learn from it.
Do you have questions for me?
I guess my question is: Do you think you could one day could accept my apology? Maybe not forgive, but accept my apology.
So in the last few days, I have thought about different scenarios of what might happen if we talked. And I thought about you apologizing, and I tried to think about what it means to accept that. I guess I still don’t know what it means or matters, but I do accept your apology.
I can’t tell you what that means to me. Again, it’s not saying forgiveness, but it’s a huge step for me. It’s something I feel is lucky for me to have, for you to accept that.
I am also interested in what you felt you needed after it happened. You were shunned, which is not something I had asked for but is I guess what I wanted. I wanted you to be shunned. I didn’t want to have to move through a social space if you were going to be there, but I also wanted someone to keep you accountable. I think a lot about what I needed back then, but do you ever think about that for yourself?
I don’t know. See, yeah. I was shunned, like you said. I felt like I deserved it, though, so it’s hard for me to think if I should have gotten some other treatment. Maybe some professional thing. I don’t know if I have the answer to that. I don’t know.
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