It all happened in a few horrifying minutes on a beautiful autumn afternoon like today. My mom sent me to invite a neighbor man over for supper. As a willowy, 115-pound 15-year-old, I didn’t have much in common with the barrel-shaped, widowed atheist farmer who lived a half mile or so down the deserted gravel road. I usually tried to avoid him when he came over, because his hugs made me uncomfortable. But as a budding Christian, I felt pity for him and wanted to somehow share God’s love. So as I stood at his screen door inviting him over for supper, I added, “I’m praying for you.”
His response shocked me. He leaned over, grabbed me in a crushing hug, and wouldn’t let go. He finally released his grip, only to grab my chin in his big, meaty hand and plant a sickening kiss on my lips. Grabbing my arm, he growled, “Come in here. I wanna show you something.”
“I—I have to get home,” I stammered.
“Come in here,” he insisted, tightening his grip on my forearm as he dragged me across the threshold. “I wanna show you something!”
I grabbed the door-frame and fought him, terrified at the realization that no one would hear me even if I screamed for help—and I was too paralyzed to do that anyway. “I need to go help my mom,” I kept pleading as I fought this man who was probably three times my size.
I don’t know how long we wrestled there in his door-frame, him tugging my arm, me desperately clinging to the door-frame and insisting I needed to go. It was a miracle of God that I won—I know that now. Finally he let go, pushed past me wordlessly and marched down the steps to his flower bed. Plucking an armful of purple chrysanthemums, he shoved them into my shaking hands. “Here. Take those to your mom,” he ordered, heading back into his house.
That walk home is burned into my mind forever. The rage. The horror. The shock. The nauseating sense of violation, even if “only” on the lips. I prayed as I watched the dust puff out from under my feet at each step—if you could call it prayer. I was screaming at God in my head—maybe even out loud, I honestly can’t remember. I only remember the words—word-for-word, because that prayer rang through my head for years. “What kind of God are you?! What kind of father just sits and watches while this kind of stuff happens to His daughter?!” I spewed all the pent-up rage and brokenness of my soul. “I don’t know what kind of God You are, but I’m through with the stupid ‘trust God’ thing, because You never take care of me! I always have to take care of myself!” I told Him I wasn’t going to do any stupid stuff like drugs or drinking, but that this whole “trust God” thing was obviously a scam, because He never did anything anyway.
And through it all, I had to carry those wretched, nasty-smelling purple chrysanthemums for my mother.
The panic attacks started soon afterward. There had been nightmares before, from previous trauma, but nothing like this. I didn’t know what panic attacks were—I’d never heard of them. I just knew that if a man walked behind me, or if a man stepped into the grocery store aisle where I was standing, my throat would close up and I would have to flee. Of course, I kept it a dark secret. I didn’t want people to know I was crazy.
The need to wear jeans in order to sleep started soon after that, too. I began sleeping fully clothed except my shoes, probably for years. Somehow, I felt safer with jeans on, reasoning that there was one more layer that would give me time to fight if someone attempted to assault me. Even two years after the assault, sleeping in a boarding school bunk with an alarm system on the dorm and a roommate sleeping on the bunk above me, I would lie there awake and worry. Because what if some guys come and kidnap me and march me off into the darkness at knife-point, and I don’t have shoes on? I knew this didn’t make logical sense. But I couldn’t shake the paranoia, the dark gut-wrenching fear that had gripped me ever since that horrible afternoon. The anxiety left me always like a feral cat in a corner, facing outward with claws bared, trying to make sure no one could get me again. Depression would wash over me in waves, waking me up sobbing at night, powerless after another nightmare. I wasn’t sure I wanted to live sometimes.
But I’m so glad I did.
However, one thing has never left me: the memory of the emotional impact of a sexual assault. Many people minimize what has happened to them, reasoning “It was only…” or “At least he didn’t…” They blame themselves for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as if they somehow scheduled their own assault. Others who have not been there trivialize such assaults similarly, scoffing at victims’ explanations of the life-shattering damage of physical violation. Society expects us to pretend these things are little things. After all, haven’t they happened to most women? What does it matter if politicians, or friends, or strangers on the bus, grope us or otherwise touch us in inappropriate ways? Forget about it—your violation was just imaginary. Whatever you do, don’t make a big deal about nothing. If you do, the person who assaulted you is likely to be painted as the victim—because what’s wrong with you, that you get so upset over such a little thing?
But I will never forget the complexity of the anguish, fear, anger and helplessness that can all twist together in one terrifying moment of unforgettable powerlessness.
I planted purple chrysanthemums in my yard this fall. Why? Because they symbolize something different to me now: triumph. I will not let a predator steal even one beauty.
Written by Nicole Parker, originally published on Facebook, and shared here with permission.