What's Left?: Reconciling good intentions with traumatic outcomes

Three years after being assaulted, I'm still working through the experience and the complicated emotions that come with it.

Emma McNamee

NOTE: Content warning for discussion of sexual assault.

In mid-March of 2020, I was assaulted outside the Chicago Red Line station on State Street. If you remember anything about mid-March of 2020, there was a lot going on. But for me, it’s always this: just before the COVID-19 lockdown, the day before my little sister’s birthday and the Illinois primary, and across the street from the building I lived in as a college freshman, I got assaulted.

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In the three years since, March 16 hangs around my head like a dark cloud. I'm unfocused, anxious and easily upset in the days leading up to it. I wreak havoc on my eating habits, my sleep schedule. I exhibit completely normal responses for someone who experienced something traumatic and I am angry at myself for it. I think about it, the way this experience affects me, my interactions, my behavior and thoughts — how it sometimes feels like it's seeped into my life and I can’t separate it out.

I don’t like to talk about it. I avoid thinking about it until something reminds me. Then, it’s impossible not to.

A few weeks before March starts, I’m on the phone with one of my friends, and while meandering through topics he tells me that he thinks it’s silly to learn how to fight because no one ever uses that stuff in real life.


“I have,” I tell him, bewildered, because what a bizarre thing to say. From the martial arts classes I took into my teenage years, to the kickboxing and self-defense classes I attended in college, I’ve used those skills more than once.

The line is quiet, neither of us saying anything, and I wonder if he’s thinking the same thing I am — that the most recent time I had to defend myself was in Chicago. He knows, only in the vaguest terms, that something happened. That it's hard to talk about.

The pause goes on; I can’t stop thinking about how strange it is for him to think this — but he and I have had very different experiences. He has no point of reference for violence like that; it's a foreign concept instead of a pervasive one. No one ever gave him pepper spray in his Christmas stocking and a taser for his birthday. This realization sinks in slowly, and in the wake of it, I am insanely, irrationally jealous.

I want to be him so badly right then. I want to not remember that the girls in our middle school gym class asked me to teach them simple defensive moves the same year that some boys in our grade started playing Firetruck — a “game” where they’d place hands on our inner thighs and told us to say red light when they went too far, only to laugh and say “firetrucks don’t stop for red lights” while sliding hands higher.

It’s one instance in many, and not just in my life. Sexual assault isn’t rare. It should be. It shouldn’t be the sort of thing that happens to half the female population in the U.S. and one in three men .

For me, it happened in broad daylight, handing out homemade chocolate chip cookies and PB&J sandwiches, something I had done many times before but never once since. When I lived in Chicago, I stress-baked, and it was college, so I baked a lot. It meant lots of leftovers, and there were plenty of people around who were hungry.

I spoke with the man who assaulted me for probably ten minutes before it happened because he seemed lonely. I didn’t want to be impolite.

That was before he grabbed me, held me in place while he said the sort of things you can’t print in a newspaper, tried to put his hands on my neck and under my shirt, then laughed at the way I panicked, like my protesting was charming or cute.


In the months that followed and even now, it's hard not to feel like I invited it on myself by being too nice, or by being out there in the first place, for freezing up in the moment he put his hands on me.

There is a part of me, now, always worried that if I seem too nice, too friendly, I’m going to wind up in that situation again. It’s horrible to be scared of being kind. I don’t want to ration out kindness for fear that it’s going to come back to bite me; I don’t want to be jealous of my friends who have no frame of reference for sexual harassment or assault. No amount of logic — of knowing it has very little to do with me, really — seems to shake that.

I find myself approaching interactions with strangers like a balancing act. Be polite, but keep your distance. You can be friendly, but not too friendly. Don’t make it obvious he makes you nervous. Don’t do anything that could come across as flirting, or make you seem available, or receptive or, or, or, or.

That’s a horrible way to think — and it’s untrue. It doesn’t matter if you’re nice or not. Hitting back at middle school boys didn’t stop them from making a game out of consent in the first place; refusing to smile at the much older regular who told me I should show more skin at my high school summer job didn’t stop him from repeatedly hitting on me; and if it hadn’t been me in Chicago, it probably would have been someone else.

I think those concepts are easier to swallow from the outside looking in. Victim blaming is wrong and I'm endlessly empathetic for people who have experienced sexual assault until I'm the victim. Suddenly it feels impossible to stop going over all the details and wondering if I had just done something differently, would it not have happened?

But kindness is not an invitation. Existing, occupying space, isn’t an opportunity to be objectified or touched. It was a long time after my assault, before someone said that to me, and I didn’t realize how badly I needed to hear it. Plenty of people told me it wasn’t my fault, but that felt so impossible to reconcile, and sometimes it still does.

So I’ll say it again, for myself and anyone else who may need to hear it: Kindness is not an invitation. Existing is not an invitation. It never has been, so don't punish yourself for either.

A friend asked me once, if it was hard for me knowing nothing ever happened to the guy. Nothing came of the report I filed; there was no consequence for him. The truth is, I care very little about what happened to him. He was sick and he did something wrong. I don't need to see him punished and I certainly don’t need to forgive him. Someday, though, I'd really like to not be so angry with myself. If I'm forgiving anyone, I'm trying to start with me.


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Opinion by Emma McNamee
Emma McNamee joined The Globe team in October 2021 as a reporter covering Crime & Courts, Politics, and the City beats. Born and raised in Duluth, Minn., McNamee left her hometown to attend school in Chicago at Columbia College. She graduated in 2021 with a degree in Multimedia Journalism, with a concentration in News & Feature Writing and a minor in Creative Writing.
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