Growing up in Downtown North Bergen, New Jersey I was raised to always look over my shoulder and be aware of my surroundings. We were taught about stranger danger and staying in groups, but it never really felt unsafe. As little children, we would play on our front lawns and everyone looked out for each other. We knew the neighbors’ names, we could borrow an egg and never give one back. It was very much urban but it felt like any small town would. As with most things, in time it evolved into something nearly unrecognizable. Some of it had to do with the conversion of single-family homes into multi-unit apartments which made it harder to get to know your neighbors. Another major factor was the constant construction going on around us. The workers, total strangers, who spent long days and nights in very close proximity but you never knew anything about them. Not a day that went by where the men working on this overpass didn’t make perverted remarks and obscene gestures at the young girls and women walking across the street. Eventually, the once tree-lined Liberty Avenue turned into a major thoroughfare connecting to it the highway. Once that happened, things changed.
I was a cautious person by nature so it wasn’t entirely out of the ordinary for me to smell food before I ate it to make sure it wasn’t spoiled. I’d look six times before crossing the street, even if it was clearly safe to go. My incessant reminders to my friends that I would only “cross at the green, not in between” drove them crazy. I never dove in shallow pools or swam without a buddy. I did everything in my power to play it safe.
I liked to think I was in control of everything, all the time. Then one day, just like any other, I became a victim of an assault. That’s when I learned the hard way, some things were out of my control.
I was a sophomore in High School and like every teenager on a Friday after school, I was trying to make plans for my weekend. I found out about a party in West New York, just one town over, through a mutual friend. The party was in a High Rise that overlooked New York City. I wasn’t personal friends with the guy having the party but since my mutual friend told me about it I was comfortable enough going.
It was like any other Friday night in my house, my mother was working, my father was home with a few buddies and my sister was with her boyfriend. I got dressed, got a ride up to my friend Alex’s house because we were planning on walking to the party from there.
It’s funny what you remember when you want to forget. I was wearing a blue and white striped mock turtleneck from The Gap with black leggings, Doc Martins and a denim jacket. I had on gold hoop earrings and a gold necklace that had sentimental meaning, a gift from my Great Grandfather. Some nights, I the air smells like it did on that night and it brings me right back to that place.
Everything happened so fast, me and Alex took the elevator up to the 7th Floor and followed the music to the apartment that was having the party. We made our way around the room, feeling out the crowd. I only knew one person but noticed Alex saying hello to a few people. She grew up in the area. After making our rounds we found a wall and stood there talking for about 20 minutes. At some point, a guy approached me and was trying to talk. I wasn’t interested and let him know. I remember him grabbing my arm and trying to pull me to dance with him. I smiled through it and told him NO again. He was very persistent and very drunk so I immediately felt intimidated by him. Finally, he got the hint and walked away. I didn’t think much of it at all.
Alex left to use the bathroom and while I was standing there, I realized the guy was talking to a group of girls and pointing at me. This immediately made me uncomfortable, especially because I was alone. I didn’t want this to escalate any further so I looked for Alex so we could leave. Before I was able to find my friend, a girl grabbed me and asked if I knew her “Cousin” Junior and pointed at the guy who approached me earlier, he was standing across the room laughing with his friends. I told her I didn’t know him and once again tried to leave.
At this point, she and a large group of girls surrounded me. They were saying that I shouldn’t have done what I did to her cousin. I understand rejection was not something that teenage boys handled well, but this was not how I thought it would escalate. Eventually, their verbal attacks became physical and they pushed me until I was cornered against a wall. With nowhere to go, surrounded by these drunk girls, I had no allies and it happened. Someone threw a punch and I remember getting hit and then fighting back with everything I had for about 30 seconds. I was only 14 years old and 125 pounds, there might have been eight girls against me. Somehow, I made it out of there with nothing more than some scratches and pulled hair. Still, Alex was nowhere to be found, she probably was looking for me or had left not realizing I was under that pile of girls. So, I just hoped she was safe and hopped on the elevator.
During the seven flight ride down I tried to comb my fingers through my hair and stood close to the doors to try and see my reflection. I wasn’t sure why that happened, aside from me hurting a fragile person’s ego, but I was safe now. Honestly, when I was in that apartment with those girls fighting me, I wasn’t scared, I was mad. I was most upset that I put myself in a vulnerable position. I also knew that it wasn’t over, because in my teenage mind, I had friends who had my back too.
I made my way to the street and began looking for a payphone to call for a ride home. I was alone, in the dark, in an unfamiliar place, after what happened I was exhausted and just wanted to be home. I walked about one block before I heard someone behind me. I decided to cross the street, and from the corner of my eye, I saw the figure of a man. I could tell by the beads and colors he was wearing around his neck that he was from the party I just left. I tried my best to walk faster but seconds later, in the middle of Boulevard East, he grabbed me by the back of my denim jacket. I was thrown against a parked car, then dragged to an alley where he threw me against a brick wall. I wanted to scream but he told me to just shut up, so I did. When I felt like his grip was loosening, I tried to get away. I wiggled my way out of the jacket, so he grabbed my shirt. Then I pulled myself out of my shirt. But, the more I struggled, the harder he hit me. He was telling me that I “shouldn’t fight back” and he was going to “teach me a lesson”. He had a mustache and was much older than the crowd at the party. As he wrapped his hand around my neck, only left with a bra, I knew I could not fight anymore. I was exhausted. With every blow to my head, I could hear less noise. See less light. My legs gave in, I was having trouble breathing and I fell to the ground.
I vaguely remember the voice of a man yelling something at this guy while he was beating me. When I woke up, in the back of an ambulance it was unclear how I was still alive. I didn’t know where my clothes were and I could feel that my necklace was gone, along with everything I believed about humanity and everything I thought I knew about life.
The EMT asked my name and asked who did this to me. I wished I had an answer. I was just lying there, I didn’t really remember how I ended up in an ambulance. The EMT asked me, “Do you know who the president is?” and I remember saying “George Clinton”. After this, I can only recall me begging my parents to just bring me home. I didn’t want to be in a hospital. I wanted to shower and be in the safety of my house.
I was embarrassed and ashamed. I blamed myself for being somewhere I shouldn’t have been, with people I didn’t know. At the hospital, the police told me I would need to go in and finish answering questions and file a report. I assured them I told them everything I knew, but they thought by morning I would be in a better place to talk.
My parents brought me to this makeshift police department that was in the basement of the projects. It was a remote station that was assigned to “my case” and I told them everything I knew. “A guy was upset because I rejected him, so he told some girls and they jumped me. I got away and outside of the apartment, an older man chased me and attacked me. I don’t know where he came from or who he was. I don’t have any names. I don’t even remember the street the party was on.”
All my life I was told that the police were the “good guys” and they were there to “Protect and Serve” me and the community. So, I was sure that my cooperation would be what they needed to keep this person from hurting anyone else. There I was, bloodied from road rash, my face, neck, and back had raised dark red scratches and little cuts were everywhere on my body. I had spots on my head that were completely bald from where the hair was ripped right from the root. I had blood in my eye, bruises on every inch of my body and I was in more pain just sitting there than I had ever felt in my life.
I sat there as the police grilled me, and not in a way that felt normal. They took out an old Polaroid camera and made me stand for photos. I was horrified to raise my shirt in front of everyone, as I was always very modest and uncomfortable with my body. This went on for hours with questions asking if I was drinking, which I wasn’t. If I was intimate any with these men, which again, at just 14 having never been sexually active before, I was embarrassed to even answer these questions in front of my parents. Then they started asking where my parents were while I was “out in the streets alone at 11 pm” and it felt like they were insinuating that they were negligent or that I somehow had asked for this. “You should be happy that you weren’t really hurt out there,” they said “you could’ve been raped or killed” which I am sure was supposed to make me feel better.
Eventually, they pulled out a little book with some Polaroid photos and there he was, on the second page, a Polaroid of the guy who did this to me. I was 100% sure it was him, but just as I was about to ID him an officer said “Before you do that, we gotta tell you, these aren’t the guys you want as an enemy”. It sounded like a warning. My parents looked as confused as I was, “If we take him in, chances are that you’ll have more to worry about than if you just let it be”. They basically told me to not ID the man, yes right under his name said 19 years old. He was a man who beat a 14-year-old girl and left her in the road unconscious. They made the decision for us, “they would get taken in on something sooner than later” the officer assured my family.
Let that sink in…
As we left, all looking defeated, I was given some advice from one of the officers “you should really find some new friends”.
I never knew the danger I was in that night. Hearing this, made me feel like I was victimized all over again. There would be no armed officers protecting me after that day. I never felt safe again. I knew he was still out there, somewhere.
My entire life changed after this night. I honestly was never the same person. I think the hardest thing to deal with is the thought that I didn’t ID the person because I would have to live in fear, but here I was living in fear regardless. I would end up finishing the school year at home. Not leaving my house for months. Having anxiety attacks and nightmares. Being introduced to what became a lifetime of therapy and worst of all, I was watching ALL the people I loved suffer right along with me.
I had to sit by and watch as my parents did that thing that parents do, find a way to blame themselves. My sister suffering through questions and whispers in school. It was wrong in so many ways… I was only 14 but I knew that I didn’t want to live like this anymore. I lived with an abnormal amount of fear. Every noise, every time the doorbell rang, every time my parents had to go somewhere, forcing my sister to sit home with me. It was torture for everyone. I was to blame for bringing this into our lives and I wanted to do whatever was possible to make their lives normal again, even if that meant leaving.
I moved to California to live with my Aunt. I was essentially running away from my fears. I knew that nobody would find me there to hurt me and it would give me a chance at a normal life again. I would go to school, make friends and nobody needed to know what happened in New Jersey. That was the plan. Moving to California was a great decision, I made lifelong friends and finally was a kid again. But, I realized too soon that I would eventually need to go home and face those fears. So my stay was short-lived.
Now, over 25 years after my attack, I am happy to say that this is something that did not destroy me. It did make me more aware of things and people. I discovered my intuition and have learned to trust it. I have had to assure my loved ones that we did the right thing in the moment because this is something they still struggle with at times. I am still in therapy and once in a while, this comes up, usually when my thoughts go somewhere dark and irrational. But for what it is worth, I am whole. I overcame.
You learn in therapy that you have to forgive people for things, even when there is no apology. Why? Because usually the anger or resentment you harbor only hurts you. Well, I had a unique opportunity one day. It just so happened, about 10 years after the attack I ran into that guy. No, not the one who attacked me, the one who instigated the chain of events. He recognized me immediately. His eyes filled with tears, he asked if he could please talk to me for one minute, that’s all he needed. So, I said yes. “I am so sorry for what happened that night, I became a father soon after that and I know that I was given a daughter because of what I did to you. I lose sleep worrying that she will suffer for my mistakes. I go to church. I pray a lot. I pray for you. I beg for your forgiveness.” I wasn’t sure how Karma worked back then but I didn’t want his daughter to ever feel my pain either. He continued “Please say you forgive me. I never want my daughter to see harm.” I believed him. I didn’t say much, simply “I forgave you years ago”, and I reached out to hug him. In this moment, a grown man broke down in my arms sobbing. I comforted him, like so many did for me through the years.